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Xinjiang province produces most of China’s cotton with help of John Deere machines

cotton boll photo by montemari via

This article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) tells a story about which most Americans don’t know enough. Xinjiang province, in China’s far West, is a major cotton producer; most of China’s cotton comes from this province. Xinjiang is also home to a persecuted minority– the Uighurs.

More than a million (out of roughly 12 million, half of the total population of Xinjiang, which is 22 m) Uighurs are under detention in camps known as “slave labor” camps. They are imprisoned for being “unreliable”– in most cases, without any criminal charges.

The US is involved because John Deere cotton farming equipment is made in the US, and it is the preferred brand in Xinjiang. The equipment may soon be banned from export, and sellers are rushing to deliver it to China before any ban takes effect.

Now, the backstory:

The Uighur people are predominantly Muslim and they have been subjects of China since the seventeenth century. After 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was declared, the Uighurs were designated a discrete minority group by the government. The government’s policy was to assimilate them into the Chinese state by teaching them Mandarin and eliminating expressions of Islam. At the same time, intensive development of the province was begun.

In reaction to Chinese government policy, guerilla groups sprang up; the most prominent was called the East Turkestan People’s Party. The Soviet Union supported these guerilla groups with money and arms. Control passed to the United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan, directly supported by the Soviets. This support was actually a continuation of the support given to separatist groups by the Soviets since the 1930’s, so there was a regular Soviet policy of destabilization in the area then known as East Turkestan.

Guerilla activity continued into the 1990’s. When the Chinese government cracked down on the guerillas in 1997 with raids and the execution of 30 people during Ramadan (the biggest Islamic holiday), the reaction of outrage was partially expressed as bus bombings.

The Chinese government had been encouraging Chinese people of the Han ethnic group to immigrate to Xinjiang. They supported these immigrants and discriminated against the ethnically Uighur people. The reaction was intense and culminated in the early 2000’s with campaigns of assassination against ethnically Han people. People were stabbed on the street and bombs were set off, most intensively in the period 2009-2016 following a riot in 2009 in which over a hundred people were killed. Many of these attacks were coordinated by the “Turkistan Islamic Party.”

The Chinese government responded by establishing a “police state” in Xinjiang, with thousands of checkpoints; a hundred thousand new police officers in were hired in 2016 alone. Up to then, government policy had been relatively limited– such things as long beards and naming children “Muhammad” or “Fatimah” were banned. Mandarin Chinese replaced the Uighur tongue in primary schools.

In 2016, a new Chinese governor for the province of Xinjiang was named. He was known as a “hard-liner.” He had “re-education camps” built that were officially named “counter-extremism training centers” or “vocational training and education centers.” Eventually over a million people were detained in those camps. (Some estimates, probably exaggerated, put the number at three million.) The total population of Xinjiang is estimated at 22 million.

These places started as indoctrination centers but transitioned to work camps. All of them look like prisons, with fences, guard towers, and gates. The people detained in these places have said that they were tortured or otherwise mistreated. They are “brain-washed” to leave their religion and take up the communist ideology.

The children of these prisoners are kept in “boarding schools” which are described as “de facto orphanages.” The prisoners are eventually released, but not until they have renounced any adherence to religion or “bourgeois” values. The transition to work camps has made these people slave laborers.

Where do these people work? On giant cotton farms, to return to the premise of this post. China produces 22% of the world’s raw cotton, and 84% of China’s cotton is grown in Xinjiang, according to this BBC article. In order to produce all this cotton, John Deere’s equipment is the most popular. According to the SCMP, the US has sold nearly $500 million worth of heavy-duty cotton-harvesting equipment to China since 2017 (apparently almost all of it John Deere brand.)

The SCMP article says that John Deere equipment is preferred because it is much higher quality than Chinese machines. Deliveries of this equipment spiked this spring to a higher level than at any time in the last ten years. Apparently the equipment deliveries are intended to beat a potential ban on US sales to China for Xinjiang by Congress. The law was just signed by the president on June 14.

(Much of the history is sourced from Wikipedia (again) and there is a good article in there on the history of Xinjiang, plus a few more on the re-education camps and just what a police state is.)

(PS the wordpress editor seems to have undergone some work; highlighting text for a hyperlink appears to have stabilized. Glad to see regular improvements; it means someone with skills is taking an interest.)

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