Uighurs forced to keep China running at height of Covid-19 pandemicSource: The Sunday Times
Shocking evidence has emerged that, at the height of China’s coronavirus lockdown, when factories were brought to a standstill by quarantine and travel restrictions, the Chinese Communist Party resorted to forced labour among Uighurs to keep production lines running.
Despite the dangers posed to their lives by the rampaging pandemic, Uighur workers from the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang were packed into trains with blacked-out windows and herded on to special charter flights to be transferred to key technology and textile factories.
The coronavirus labour shipments were the latest phase in the exploitation of the Uighurs as Beijing exported nationwide the model of forced labour already deployed in Xinjiang.
The transfers bolstered China’s economic rebound from the ravages of Covid-19 – touted by President Xi Jinping as evidence that his regime had vanquished the virus in a great patriotic battle. They raise renewed moral questions for worldwide importers of China’s factory output.
The scale of the forced migration from the closed “prison province” has only now become evident via videos posted to Chinese social media and retrieved by exiles from behind the digital iron curtain that envelops Xinjiang.
The clips show Uighurs crowded together on buses and in airports, dressed in work uniforms of jackets and caps in matching oranges, reds and blues.
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uighur Congress, an exile group, said that some endured much grimmer transport.
“People were transferred by trains, with blacked-out windows with bars across and with black sacks on their heads,” he said. “In some cases they’re transferred incredibly long distances and their family members have no idea where they’ve gone.
“Cities were quarantined in lockdown. Chinese workers were asked to return to work, but many refused. So the government had a huge number of Uighurs transferred to other provinces to locations where they needed workers.”
Under Xi, Beijing has detained more than a million Uighurs and other ethnic Turkic Muslims in recent years in the name of counter-terrorism, holding them in camps described as “re-education” facilities or “vocational training centres”.
Late last year, as international condemnation mounted, Beijing claimed that most detainees had “graduated” from the camps. But Isa said that many were simply shunted to factories that were “really just a different kind of camp, a continuation of the government’s regime”.
The revelations emerged as Xinjiang became the source of China’s worst coronavirus outbreak for months. The surge in cases has only deepened the suffering in the province.
The regional capital, Urumqi, was placed under lockdown late last month, with authorities cancelling nearly all flights, closing public transport and ordering residents to remain in their homes.
“Barricades have been erected on every corner and they are saying that whoever leaps over them will be taken for ‘re-education’,” a local resident told Radio Free Asia, using a euphemism for the vast network of internment camps.
Chinese state media portrayed the Uighur worker transfers as part of the so-called Xinjiang aid scheme, a purported poverty-alleviation programme to provide work for the people of an economically-deprived region.
One article noted that workers en route to Fujian and Guangxi were first treated to a speech by a local official extolling the “beauty of hard labour”. Another report said of a Uighur woman: “Although the mask covered most of her face, she could still feel her excitement.”
But it was the short videos posted on Douyin, a local version of the TikTok social networking site and only accessible in China, that gave a fuller picture.
The clips were monitored by Uighur exiles who have managed to keep their Chinese phones and hence can still peer behind Beijing’s so-called great firewall. Many were studying the videos in a desperate hope of spotting missing relatives.
The footage was shared with Coda Story, an investigative technology website. It identified a rare coded protest in many of the videos – they were posted to the musical backdrop of the Chinese version of “Bella Ciao”, an anthem for agricultural labourers protesting against harsh conditions in 19th-century Italy.
Forced labour has for years provided the cheap basis of industrial expansion in Xinjiang, according to researchers. But the programme has now been extended far beyond this sprawling desert region in western China.
The scheme’s extension was investigated earlier this year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi), a defence and security think-tank. Its report, Uighurs for Sale, chronicled how Uighur workers are bought like chattels and moved across China to factories linked to supply chains for global brands in fashion, technology and automotive sectors.
There they work in factories equipped with watchtowers, police stations and guards. One job agency advertisement offered to supply 1,000 Uighur workers aged 16 to 18. “The advantages of Xinjiang workers” include “semi-military style management and can withstand hardship”, it said.
Factory managers could request police from Xinjiang to be deployed with the new arrivals, with a “minimum order” of 100 workers “delivered (along with a Uyghur cook) within 15 days of signing of a one-year contract”. Another advert promised “Uighur workers, all female, 18-35-years-old, proficient in Chinese, obey arrangements”.
Party officials are given quotas to supply the labour programmes and companies receive generous subsidies to employ the workers. Some are transferred direct from the camps. But even others have little scope to say no, fearing they or their families will be punished and perhaps detained.
The programme is dressed up as economic development. But a provincial newspaper cited by Aspi laid bare the highly politicised motive for the labour transfers.
The workers were expected to “gradually alter their ideology” and turn into “modern, capable youth” who “understand the party’s blessing, feel gratitude toward the party, and contribute to stability”, it wrote. Another media outlet said that the programme will “emancipate the mind and eliminate old habits”.
The transfers are a “direct pipeline of Uyghur workers from ‘vocational training’ and political indoctrination in Xinjiang to factory work across China”, Aspi reported.
From Chinese government data, the institute established that at least 80,000 Uighurs were transferred to 27 factories across nine provinces between 2017 and 2019.
Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, the analyst who led the investigation, believes the true figure is much higher as Beijing’s social re-engineering campaign reaches new intensity.
“The ‘re-education’ campaign appears to be entering a new phase, as government officials now claim that all ‘trainees’ have ‘graduated’,” she wrote, describing a “state-sponsored labour transfer scheme that is tainting the global supply chain”.
Photographs from earlier this year of one factory that received Uighur labour illustrated the prison-like working conditions. The images showed that the complex was equipped with watchtowers, razor wire and inward-facing barbed-wire fences. Although workers could walk just outside the compound, their movements were monitored by factory police using facial recognition technology.
Darren Byler, an American academic who has studied Chinese policy in Xinjiang, said that the use of Uighur labour as a cheap and plentiful resource played a key role in Beijing’s economic plans.
While workers in industrialised eastern China could demand higher wages, factory owners knew that Uighur labourers were in no position to do so, he noted.
“It appears that in many cases, for local officials and factory owners, career advancement and other favourable conditions are made contingent on participation,” said Byler.
“This is about a sort of race to the bottom, in terms of most production for the least amount of money.
“From an employer’s perspective, the Uighurs probably appear to be an ideal low-wage, tireless work unit, with a state-mandated management structure already in place.”