Xinjiang is central to the epicenter of a regional rebellion against Chinese rule. The five-year-old rebellion has triggered a massive counteroffensive by Chinese forces, using Orwellian language to justify a program to retrain pro-government residents to make things like uniforms and shoes for the Chinese Communist Party.
As China rushed to crush the rebellion and put security back in its stride, it began pushing the Xinjiang’s native Han ethnicity—including other ethnic minorities—to make products for the Great China of the East. The people who benefit from that program are the people who make up Xinjiang’s semi-government-run industry industry, where — according to business owners and foreign contractors—Chinese security forces allegedly subjected local citizens to forced labor for all sorts of goods from the merchandise they sold through to the sold goods they produced.
Dama Iryukho, a Kyrgyz solar panel manufacturer who supplies Masinag, a factory owned by a Chinese state enterprise, told the Kyrgyz human rights organization Agenturjak that the worker was required to make up to $750 daily on top of his wages and might be kicked out of the facility every day, along with other personnel, if they did not meet the production quotas. Agentsurjak described Chinese security forces forcing a white truck that the factory purchased to pick up energy-efficient solar panel panels at a state customer’s location. The shipment came with hundreds of workers who took up not the surrounding countryside, but rather Xinjiang.
Han political-education programs in Xiperjiang were also reportedly pushed to help Han manufacturers increase their sales. Solar-panel manufacturing has been on the rise since Masinag began producing a distinctive and efficient solar product. Its produce is made in state-run facilities in China, most notably at Masinag. China isn’t the only country contributing to the production of solar panels, but that’s because Xinjiang has figured out a way to have their cake and eat it too. Government officials threatened dealers and factories with the loss of a custom tariff if they didn’t sell their products to state-owned institutions under its authority. Solar panels were constructed in Xinjiang and sold to government-owned companies located in other provinces in China.
While the workers took the risk and put their lives at risk, the investments in the region were considered worthwhile, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. The Xinjiang Sustainable Economic Autonomous Region is home to 68 companies in 17 different sectors, according to the agency. It’s a 21.2 percent increase from 2014 and the largest area for an autonomous region in China.
The Chinese government is also encouraging investments in the region via an accelerator that for 12 years has awarded 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) in loans to projects in the region. While the region is unusual from Chinese foreign investment perspective, the 10 largest areas of investment last year were all in Tibet. The communist government in Beijing’s target market is the Zhangzhou region, including Hong Kong, Macau, and the Pearl River Delta.
However, one of the region’s most notable solar projects faces some scrutiny. Global Solar Rating admitted at the end of 2015 that it was scrapping the “Hong Kong-bound” product after noticing that parts were landing in Hong Kong, which could violate the country’s law against promoting illegal immigration. Yitai, a Xinjiang-based solar panel manufacturer, was able to enroll in a period of no approvals to continue making Hong Kong-bound panels, according to China Business News. The unnamed agency responsible for the project couldn’t be identified.
While a wide range of Chinese policies are suspected of abusing the migrant worker, the vulnerability to forced labor is unique to the solar industry. Masinag’s U.S. entry show the ways China can use its industrial relations techniques, which are likely being widely adopted internationally as Chinese officials meet with U.S. counterparts in Washington, D.C., this week.