This study traces the evolution of systemic state-sponsored coercive labor in the cotton harvest in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The recent situation in the XUAR is compared to Uzbekistan, which implemented forced labor in cotton picking until 2021. Both regions create structurally coercive labor environments through a centralized authoritarian state apparatus that deploys human resource–intensive local grassroots mobilization efforts. The article finds that while both regional entities’ coercive labor dynamics are in many ways comparable, the resulting labor settings are not easily captured through static standard measures such as the ILO forced labor indicators. Instead, state-sponsored forced labor is characterized by pervasive state-induced and systemic dynamics of coercion that are deeply embedded within sociocultural contexts. Whereas Uzbekistan’s coercive labor practices were primarily driven by economic considerations, Xinjiang’s labor transfer program pursues some economic aims but is predominantly designed to achieve Beijing’s wider ethnopolitical goals in the region.

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