Friday, March 22, 2024

The Uyghur Connection

The People's Republic of China is the world's largest seafood producer, producing over sixty-seven million metric tons (67 MMT) of seafood per year, which includes more than twenty million metric tons of processed seafood. Much of that production comes from aquaculture, the domestic cultivation of fish, shrimp and other crustaceans, with wild caught seafood in decline. 

China also has a very sizeable seafood processing industry. There are approximately 9,202 seafood processing facilities, mostly in the coastal provinces of Shandong, Fujian, Liaoning, Zhejiang and Guangdong. The largest export markets for Chinese seafood are, in order of size, (1) Japan; (2) the United States; and (3) Thailand. The exports principally consist of processed seafood products. The magnitude of the exports is also staggering.  For example, it is estimated that half of the fish sticks served in American public schools were processed in China. 

Yet, in recent weeks and months, additional light has been shed on some of the workers who process seafood in Chinese facilities for both domestic and foreign markets. The revelations expose, at least for me, some of crueler dimensions of the Chinese government's ongoing persecution of the Uyghur people. This is a story of how a people, whose home can be found in a landlocked region, end along the coastline, processing seafood.

I have previously discussed China's persecution of the Uyghur people. Those discussions can be found here, here and here.  This persecution is best described by Anthropologist Adrian Zenz as a "strategy of control and assimilation ... designed to eliminate the Uyghur culture." 

One major component of this strategy is a forced labor program in which the Chinese Government forcibly transfers Uyghurs across the country to work in various industries. One of those industries, as it is being reported, is the seafood industry. In recent weeks and months, new light has been shed on some of the workers who process the seafood in China for both domestic and foreign markets. These revelations expose even crueler dimensions to the ongoing persecution of the Uyghur people.  

Investigative journalists have been chronicling this persecution and forced labor. One very good resource is The Outlaw Ocean. Investigators for the Outlaw Ocean have followed Chinese seafood vessels around the world, from the waters of North Korea to the waters off of The Gambia and then to the waters off the Falkland Islands and Galapagos Islands. Their method of communication with the crew involved throwing plastic bottles with handwritten questions (in Chinese, Indonesian and English) onto the seafood vessels. Surprisingly, the investigators received some answers. Those answers revealed abuses such as debt bondage, wage withholding, excessive working hours, forced labor, beating of crew members, confiscation of passports, prohibiting medical care and death.

Once the food made it back to the mainland for processing, The Outlaw Ocean tracked the food to a processing plant in the Shandong province, where they found forced labor working to process the catch. The forced labor consisted of Uyghurs who had been sent to work there. The forced transportation of Uyghurs has been part of what China has called as "Uyghur Aid." The communist government claims that the program is to promote "full employment" and "ethnic interaction, exchange and blending. The actual purpose is the forced assimilation of Uyghurs through forced labor. The program is "door-to-door," with Uyghurs being "delivered from the collection points in Xinjiang to the factory." 

The United States enacted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act ("UFLPA") in 2021, which requires the United States Customs and Border Protection ("CPB")  to block the import of goods produced with the forced labor of Uyghurs and other minorities. Over the past two years, CPB has seized over a billion dollars worth of goods, ranging from cotton to solar panels. However, most of those goods originate in Xinjiang or East Turkestan, making it easy to seize. 

By contrast, the production of seafood, as noted above, takes place along the coast, as opposed to a landlocked province like Xinjiang. By putting Uyghurs on trains and transporting them to a location that is thousands of miles away, China is able to evade many of the eyes watching for forced labor. 

As a result, seafood processed with forced labor has made its way into the markets of the United States and Europe. According to the Outlaw Ocean and other media sources (like Politico):

  • Over $50 million of salmon from plants in China that used Uyghur labor went to federally funded soup kitchens and programs to feed low-income elderly people;
  • Another $20 million of pollock (that is, fish sticks), was shipped to the National School Lunch Program and other federal assistance programs; 
  • Another $140 million of cod, salmon and halibut was delivered to U.S. military bases domestically and abroad. 

Those are just a few examples of how seafood processed with forced Uyghur labor has made its way into the American market. There are probably more given that at least ten large seafood companies in China have used over one thousand Uyghur workers since 2018.

There is a lot more than can be said on this issue and I may have more to say in the future. While I would ordinarily end one of these posts with my favorite recipes, it doesn't seem appropriate here. Instead, a word of advice ... try hard to determine the source of the seafood that you buy in the market. If it comes from China, buy something else. 

Until next time ...


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