[Opinion] Xinjiang Cotton: Why Hand-Picking is Still in Demand

Author: New York MOS Translation Team RD16

On March 25, Spokesperson Hua Chunying of the Foreign Ministry of China vehemently denounced H&M and Nike’s boycotting Xinjiang cotton due to the concern of forced labor being used. She stated, “Now in Xinjiang, over 40% of the cotton harvesting has been mechanicalized. … There is no need for forced labor.[1]”

But based on Chinesenews.com, a well-established Chinese news site, it reads, “According to the data released by Xinjiang’s agricultural sector in 2020, the mechanical picking rate of cotton in Xinjiang has reached 69.83%[2], of which 95% of the cotton in the northern border is picked by machinery.”

With such a high-profiled international case that is worthy of a press conference, it is a pity to see the discrepancy in the spokesperson’s citation of 40%, versus the well-publicized number of 70% in mechanization rate (same number quoted by ChinaDaily.com[5], Chinese state media).

Mechanical picking rate of cotton in Xinjiang has reached 40%, said by Hua.[1]

On the other hand, let’s move on and just assume a higher rate of machinery harvesting has been adopted in Xinjiang, i.e., 70%. That still leaves 30% for manual picking – it still cannot deny the need for a large amount of labor-intensive work for premium cotton production. And much of it is due to the obvious disadvantages of machine-harvesting, mainly in three areas:

First, there is a higher rate of impurities and harmful blemishes in the cotton “picked” by machines. While Xinjiang is a very sunny region with little rainfall during harvesting time, which is ideal for cotton growing, it means the plants could be particularly dusty by the harvesting time of September to November, compared with other regions with more rainfall. Also, some areas in Xinjiang even get snow in late autumn, which could be detrimental for harvesting. All of these could make the machine-picked cotton contain a higher percentage of impurities, such as dried leaves, dirt/dust, infertile seeds, harmful blemishes, etc. Hence, this method is not ideal for high-prized premium cotton that in high-demand by the export sector.

Cotton plants being harvested/stripped by machine in Xinjiang [1]

Second, mixed grades of cotton due to different maturities. Xinjiang is well known for its premium long-fiber cotton, which is popular in domestic and global markets. With cotton having different phases of maturity even on the same plant, this makes machine-harvested plants contain cotton of different levels of maturity or quality, which lowers the overall value. Hence, it depreciates those better-priced cotton of perfect-maturity, especially for long-fiber cotton.

Different maturities of cotton on a cotton plant

Third, downstream processes further downgrade the cotton quality and cause a loss in quantity. Machine-picked cotton needs more purification processes tough with limited gain, which has always been a challenge even to this day. This process not only cannot deliver the high quality as the hand-picking cotton, it also negatively affects the quality of the cotton, with the loss of cotton material as well. Hence, for premium cotton such as long-fiber type, only hand-picking is utilized.

Interestingly, many village people in China still travel to Xinjiang to work during the cotton harvesting months despite a long journey. A Chinese netizen’s article dated 2019 may let you in a glimpse of how back-breaking this hand-picking really is. This article depicted a story of people from Henan Province traveled by train for 3 days to Xinjiang, in order to work as a cotton hand-picking worker.  

Though not directly related to local workers from Xinjiang, this article gives a good sense of the intensity, the tediousness, the physical demandingness such as incessant hand-picking and back-bending due to cotton plants’ low height, not to mention the harsh working condition in the fields, such as scorching sun during the day, cold temperatures at night, and bug-bites. A 29-year-old migrant hand-picker lamented, “At the end of a day of hand-picking cotton, putting aside the part of nobody’s heart aching for me (i.e., no one caring about me), every part of my body aches.[3]”

The description from the photo below reads, “From 8 am till 9 pm, a full day’s work ends after 12 hours. Hand-picking demands both of your hands to be fast, but in turn, your hands get hurt easily too. After 3-month of cotton picking, most workers are left with injured or bruised nails and redness and swelling of the fingertips.[3]”

Just by using common sense coupled with a bit of online research, it is not hard for truth-seekers to filter out a lot of the “noise”, or, false information in the clothing of “facts.” Despite the advancement in machinery and wide-adoption of it, hand-picking manual labor is still in demand due to the complexity of this fluffy material’s production and the aim for the most premium quality, especially in the case of the CCP’s export sector. The premium cotton is a clear winner for getting much-needed foreign currencies.


  1. BBC: Xinjiang cotton incident: Nike and H&M face China fury
  2. Mechanical picking rate of cotton in Xinjiang
  3. Hand-pickers’ experience told by migrant workers
  4. Xinjiang cotton by the numbers (by China Daily)
  5. Cotton Harvesting Machines
  6. Cover shot credit: Reuters

Reviewer: Irene

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