China conscripts Xinjiang Muslim minorities into army of workers

As ‘rural surplus labour’, Uighurs and Kazakhs are relocated and forced into factories

Villagers in Xinjiang are taken  to cotton farms, sometimes hundreds of miles away. They pick the crop that ends up in Chinese clothing factories. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times

Villagers in Xinjiang are taken to cotton farms, sometimes hundreds of miles away. They pick the crop that ends up in Chinese clothing factories. Photograph: Adam Dean/New York Times


The order from Chinese officials was blunt and urgent. Villagers from Muslim minorities should be pushed into jobs, willing or not. Quotas would be set and families penalised if they refused to go along. “Make people who are hard to employ renounce their selfish ideas,” the labour bureau of Qapqal, a county in the western region of Xinjiang, said in the directive last year. Such orders are part of an aggressive campaign to remould Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities – mostly Uighurs and Kazakhs – into an army of workers for factories and other big employers. Under pressure from authorities, poor farmers, small traders and idle villagers of working age attend training and indoctrination courses for weeks or months, and are then assigned to stitch clothes, make shoes, sweep streets or fill other jobs.

These labour programmes represent an expanding front in a major effort by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to entrench control over this region, where these minorities make up about half the population. They are crucial to the government’s strategy of social re-engineering alongside the indoctrination camps, which have held one million or more Uighurs and Kazakhs.

The labour bureau of Qapqal ordered that villagers should undergo military-style training to convert them into obedient workers, loyal to employers and the ruling Communist Party. “Turn around their ingrained lazy, lax, slow, sloppy, freewheeling, individualistic ways so they obey company rules,” the directive said.

The government maintains that the Uighur and Kazakh villagers are “rural surplus labour” and are an underemployed population that threatens social stability. Putting them in steady, supervised, government-approved work, officials say, will erase poverty and slow the spread of religious extremism and ethnic violence.

The government describes the labourers as volunteers, though critics say they are clearly coerced. Official documents, interviews with experts, and visits by the New York Times to Xinjiang indicate that local plans uproot villagers, restrict their movements and pressure them to stay at jobs.

Experts say those harsh methods can amount to forced labour, potentially tainting the global supply chain that uses Xinjiang workers, particularly for cotton goods. Japanese retailers Muji and Uniqlo say they have used cotton from the region, while Walmart has bought goods from a company that until recently used workers from Xinjiang.

Given the tight control on Xinjiang, “We have to assume for the moment that there’s a very significant risk of coercion,” said Amy K Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and a co-author of a study on Xinjiang’s labour programmes.

Ethnic subjugation

Forced labour could arise “even if the coercion was implicit or the programmes offered workers a decent income,” she added. The labour programmes operate in parallel with the indoctrination camps in Xinjiang that have drawn condemnation from western governments. Camp inmates also receive job training, and officials say that many will be sent to work in factories. Taken collectively, the policies are designed to make the region’s Muslim minorities more secular and urbanised like China’s Han majority. Many Chinese people see that as laudable. Uighur critics see it as ethnic subjugation. “What they are trying to do is assimilate the Uighur people,” said Mustafa Aksu, a programme co-ordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The factory run by the Jinfujie Clothing Co on the sandy edge of Kashgar, a city in southern Xinjiang, has been a star in the government’s labour campaign. Jinfujie, which calls itself Golden Future in English, trained and employed 2,300 workers from villages. It also opened a branch factory in an indoctrination camp, where it would put to work more than 500 inmates, a company executive told officials last year.

The executive, Sun Yijie, a former soldier, said the company ran a tight ship to turn villagers into workers. “Beginning with military drills before they start their jobs, we foster a sense of discipline,” he said. Video footage posted online shows Jinfujie workers in grey-and-orange uniforms lined up for a pep rally. “A successful future,” they shouted in unison. The company has said it won an order from Germany to make hundreds of thousands of ski pants. Jinfujie would not answer questions about the claimed order. During a recent visit, reporters were barred by guards from visiting the Jinfujie factory or the surrounding industrial zone.

Dozens of factory zones have emerged across Xinjiang, attesting to the government’s ambitions to remake the region. Xi, China’s leader, has vowed to end poverty nationwide by late 2020, and Xinjiang officials face intense pressure to create jobs.

“The offensive to eradicate poverty has reached the crucial stage in a decisive battle,” Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party secretary of Xinjiang, said early this month on a tour of southern Xinjiang. “Transmit the pressure down, level by level.”

The labour programmes depend on luring companies from China’s wealthier eastern seaboard, where fewer young people want to work on production lines. Xinjiang has offered manufacturers inexpensive labour, as well as generous tax breaks and subsidies.

Textiles and garments

“They’re still not as fast as workers from other parts of China, ” said He Tan, a businessman who owns a small factory on the outskirts of Hotan, a city in Xinjiang. The government’s goals are sweeping. One plan issued in 2018 called for putting to work 100,000 people from the poorest parts of southern Xinjiang, a heavily Uighur area, by the end of 2020. The government recently said that target was met a year ahead of schedule. By late 2023, another plan says, Xinjiang wants one million working in its textile and garment industries, up from about 100,000 in 2017.

At He’s factory, dozens of Uighur women from nearby villages sat wordlessly in rows sewing school uniforms. Guzalnur Mamatjan, a 20-year-old Uighur, said she made about $200 a month. “I’d like to work here for two or three years and then open my own clothes shop,” she said in a brief interview in the presence of officials.

Jutting out against desert dunes, the new industrial zones in Xinjiang are often surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and security cameras. Some are built near indoctrination camps and employ former inmates. Xinjiang’s drive to put minorities in jobs often feels less like a job fair and more like a military call-up. Trainee labourers often first attend political courses similar to those used in the indoctrination camps. They practise military drills, learn patriotic Chinese songs, and listen to lectures warning against Islamic zeal and preaching gratitude to the Communist Party. New labourers are sometimes shown in Chinese news reports wearing military-type uniforms and standing at attention as they are escorted to their employers.

A watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan in Xinjiang. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP
A watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan in Xinjiang. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP

Many are separated from their families. A directive from the Qapqal government ordered that children of working couples be put in care centres in their home villages for the young, or in boarding schools for older ones, so their parents could move for work.

Workers’ movements are highly controlled if they are far from home. In Yanqi County in the region’s north, workers sent from the south are not allowed to quit unless they get written permission from several officials, according to rules from the local government.

Labour recruits undergo “political vetting” to determine if they are a security risk. In Qapqal County, officials imposed rules to grade potential recruits from most to least trustworthy. The least trustworthy had to attend indoctrination classes in the evenings, while only the most trusted could leave the county for work.

“There is a great deal of pressure placed on individuals to sign work contracts,” said Darren Byler, an expert on Xinjiang at the University of Colorado Boulder. Byler said many residents believed that resisting work transfers could prompt detention. “The threat of the camps hangs over everyone’s heads, so there is really no resistance to assigned factory work,” he said.

Half minimum wage

Chinese official media reports that workers make $400 and upwards a month, a decent income. The reality may differ, especially in smaller, struggling factories. In a township in southern Xinjiang, two-thirds of 43 factory employees whose wages were included in online records earned $114 a month, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert on Xinjiang who has studied the labour programmes.

Amanzhol Qisa, a 31-year-old Xinjiang resident, spent a year in an indoctrination camp and in April was sent to work at a clothing factory for three months. She was paid $115 a month, less than half the minimum wage, according to her husband, Muhamet Qyzyrbek.

Qyzyrbek, a Kazakh citizen, said by phone from Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan, that his wife had no choice but to take the job. “After being released, you need to work according to their policies,” he said.

Starting in late summer, villagers in Xinjiang file on to buses taking them to cotton farms, sometimes hundreds of miles away. For a few intense weeks under the sun, they hunch over in fields, picking the crop that ends up in Chinese clothing factories.

Teams of Communist Party officials in villages hold “mobilisation meetings”, pressing farmers to sign up. The pay is good, they say. “Head out boldly and bring back the cash,” a village official in Dol Township in southern Xinjiang told dozens of farmers, according a local government report last year. The village officials urged team leaders to take special care of three villagers in their 60s who had signed up to pick cotton, the report said.

Xinjiang grows 85 per cent of China’s cotton, by official estimates, and is pushing to make more textiles and garments. And nearly every link in the supply chain intersects with the government’s labour programmes. Large Chinese textile makers, such as Huafu Fashion Co, based in eastern China, have promoted their role in employing minorities from the countryside, while denying that any were forced to take the work. Some global companies have advertised high-quality Xinjiang cotton as a selling point. Japanese retailer Muji describes that its flannel uses “hand-harvested” cotton from the region. The international concern over human rights in Xinjiang is putting pressure on global retailers to vet their suppliers. The United States recently banned clothing from Hetian Taida, a company in Xinjiang suspected of using workers from an indoctrination camp.

Production partners

The parent company of Japanese retailer Uniqlo said the brand had stopped working with production partners in Xinjiang. Muji did not respond to emails requesting comment. In August, its parent company, Ryohin Keikaku, said it was committed to banning forced labour, including any used by its business partners.

Until recently, Qapqal County had sent a total of more than 440 workers to east China to work for a factory that makes inflatable paddle pools and beds for export to the United States and other countries. The factory is owned by the Bestway Leisure Products Co, which has sold such products to Walmart, Kmart and other retailers, according to export records.

Pat Fumagalli, a chief strategic officer for Bestway who is based in the United States, said the company had ended the programme to take workers from Xinjiang in October after managers in the US noted reports about the region’s labour programmes.

Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said in email: “Responsible recruitment and voluntary labour are two very important issues for Walmart.” Transform Holdco, the parent company of Kmart, declined to comment. After inquiries, inspectors acting for Walmart visited the factory. The inspectors from the ICTI Ethical Toy Programme examined records and spoke to managers. They found no disparity between the pay and conditions of workers from Xinjiang and other places, said Mark Robertson, a senior vice-president for the inspection programme.

“We did not have the opportunity to interview workers from Xinjiang as none were working at the factory when we conducted our visit,” he said. – New York Times

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