This year’s Trafficking in Persons Report, produced by the U.S. State Department, has several sections devoted to special focus areas. To help make the report more readily accessible, we’ll spend the next few weeks covering each of these special focus areas in turn, so you can learn more about areas the U.S. government considers to be of high concern in anti-trafficking, and to place it in context that is hopefully of use and interest to you. One of the special focus areas in this report is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (or B.R.I.) and the prevalence of forced labor in its projects, not just in China but also in other countries participating in the BRI.
We’ll take a look at what the Belt and Road Initiative is and why it’s of concern to US foreign policy. Then we’ll talk about what the special focus says about its links to forced labor – as well as what it doesn’t say.
What is the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative?
The People’s Republic of China (or PRC) has been engaged in a massive infrastructure investment project since 2013, in which it attempts to revitalize the former Silk Road trading routes and create corridors of global trade and investment to accelerate economic growth across the Asia Pacific, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe. Investment projects include ports, skyscrapers, railroads, roads, bridges, airports, dams, coal-fired power stations, and tunnels. According to the TIP Report, it connects more than “144 countries around the world with raw materials, technological and financial resources, and labor for large-scale projects in construction, mining, and manufacturing, among other sectors. Most BRI projects employ PRC nationals and are managed by PRC-owned enterprises. The program has enabled the PRC to find a home for its own excess manufacturing capacity and surplus laborers, while ensuring its continued access to invaluable raw material inputs, edging out other world powers from international development partnerships and economic cooperation, securing intelligence, and amassing political, military, and economic leverage over participating countries through the accrual and manipulation of debt.”
As of March of this year, 146 countries have signed to up participate in the BRI. It is estimated to affect more than 60% of the world’s population and 35% of the global economy. China’s political and economic goals include closing the gap between its affluent coastal cities and impoverished interior, boosting domestic stability, securing its borders, and reorienting global commerce away from the U.S. and Europe and towards China. As the U.S. has not acted significantly to create strong trade and investment agreements in Asia, China has stepped into the gap, and thereby significantly increased its power in the region and globally.
The BRI’s potential to create debt-trap diplomacy is of concern because if China engages in predatory loans given to smaller, poorer nations that cannot meet the debt requirements, these countries would then be subject to Chinese political pressure. There is also concern about the environmental impact of such an enormous project – especially in areas where it is difficult to conduct proper oversight. The depletion of natural resources, pollution, and disruption of ecosystems are, of course, a major concern. Another major problem is the ubiquity of Chinese coal-fired power stations contributing massively to greenhouse emissions and global warming. Chinese energy companies are expected to make up almost half of the new coal plants being generated in the next decade. BRI coal projects account for as much as 42% of China’s overseas investments, and 93% of the energy investments linked to the BRI’s Silk Road Fund go to fossil fuels. In September of last year, Xi Jinping announced that China would step up support for developing countries to adopt green and low carbon energy, and that they would no longer finance overseas coal-fired power plants. If China can be pushed to use the BRI as an opportunity for green development in line with sustainable development goals, it could be a powerful contributor to helping many countries meet their commitments to the Paris Agreement and expand renewable energy sources.
To bring it back to the Trafficking in Persons Report, it should perhaps be of no surprise that where there is one type of exploitation, other types are likely to occur too, and this year’s report asserts that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is linked to the use of forced labor across countries involved in the BRI projects.
The TIP Report asserts that BRI projects around the world have subjected people to:
deceptive recruitment into debt bondage, arbitrary wage garnishing or withholding, contract irregularities, confiscation of travel and identity documentation, forced overtime, and resignation penalties, as well as intimidation and threats, physical violence, denial of access to urgent medical care, poor working and living conditions, restricted freedom of movement and communication, and retaliation for reported abuses. Those who escape often find themselves at the mercy of local immigration authorities, who are not always trained to receive or care for trafficking victims.
It is interesting to note that the report focuses on the BRI’s use of forced labor in countries that engage in the projects generally, not just China. What it doesn’t mention specifically is the aspect of repression targeting Uyghurs in China – though that is addressed in the China country narrative.
The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority of Turkic descent in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China. They became Islamicized in the 10th century and most identified as Muslim by the 16th century. Since 2014, China has been subjecting this offically recognized ethnic minority to widespread abuses including forced sterilization, mass detentions, “re-education” to ensure adherence to the Chinese Communist Party ideology, and forced labor. They are surveilled by police for signs of “religious extremism” such as: owning books about Uyghurs, growing a beard, having a prayer rug, or quitting smoking or drinking. Cameras are installed in private homes, more than 120,000 Uyghurs have been placed in internment camps, at least half a million children have been separated from their families, and DNA is collected from the Uyghur people so the government can track down those who might be resisting the re-education campaigns.
In the China country narrative, the TIP Report explains that:
there was a government policy or pattern of widespread forced labor, including through the continued mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and members of other Turkic and/or Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) under the guise of “vocational training” and “deradicalization.” ….PRC nationals reportedly suffered forced labor in several countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe hosting Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects, within which PRC authorities exercised insufficient oversight of relevant recruitment channels, contracts, and labor conditions, and PRC diplomatic services routinely failed to identify or assist those exploited.
What Is Happening to Help the Uyghurs?
The US and the EU have made serious efforts to target the use of Uyghur forced labor in global supply chains. The US and the EU have worked to identify consumer products that rely on Uyghur forced labor, such as PVC products (PVC made in the XUAR accounts for 10% of the world’s supply), cotton, and solar panels. These countries have worked to implement import bans on such products, and there are calls for the World Bank to divest from companies that are complicit in Uyghur slave labor. In December of 2021, Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a bipartisan bill to ensure that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region will not make it into the U.S. market, and the U.S. is also pushing its North American allies to do the same.
However, as the report states, “countries do not have to face these challenges alone; to best protect against the human rights and reputational implications of forced labor in BRI projects, governments should be ready to foster and partner with a robust civil society that includes shelter organizations, direct service providers, watchdog groups, survivors, and NGOs conducting awareness raising.”
NGOs and civil society have an important role to play in helping draw attention to when and where the abuses occur so government can act effectively. For example, The Alliance for Democracy in Vietnam urged U.S. Customs & Border Protection to investigate cotton-based goods from Vietnam, as the country may be importing Xinjiang cotton to help China bypass sanctions. In this way, NGOs can play a key role in promoting corporate accountability and supporting government mechanisms against labor and human rights abuses. Rather than actors operating outside systems, NGOs can be incorporated to promote more robust and equitable systems.