Uyghurs and Other Muslims Forced to Labor in Chinese Factories

In China, a shocking new exposé has revealed that Chinese authorities are systematically forcing Muslims — mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs — into labor programs to supply Chinese factories with a cheap and compliant workforce. The New York Times investigation, based on official documents, interviews and visits to the far-western region of Xinjiang, reveals a sweeping program to push poor farmers, villagers and small traders into sometimes months-long training courses before assigning them to low-wage factory work. The programs work in tandem with indoctrination camps where an estimated 1 million adults from the Uyghur community are being imprisoned. China claims its labor programs are “vocational training centers” designed to combat extremism and alleviate poverty, while Uyghur activists say they are part of China’s ongoing campaign to strip them of their language and community and to carry out cultural genocide. We speak with Austin Ramzy, a New York Times reporter who co-authored the recent exposé, and Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American attorney and board chair at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to China, where a shocking new exposé has revealed that Chinese authorities are systematically forcing Muslims — mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs — into labor programs to supply Chinese factories with a cheap and compliant workforce.

The New York Times investigation, headlined “Inside China’s Push to Turn Muslim Minorities into an Army of Workers,” is based on official documents, interviews with leading experts and visits to the far-western region of Xinjiang, where about half of the population is Muslim.

What it reveals is a sweeping program to push poor farmers, villagers and small traders into sometimes months-long training courses before assigning them to low-wage factory work. The programs work in tandem with indoctrination camps where an estimated 1 million adults from the Uyghur community are being imprisoned.

China claims its labor programs are designed to combat extremism and alleviate poverty. Uyghur activists say they’re part of China’s ongoing campaign to strip them of their language and community and carry out nothing short of cultural genocide.

The New York Times obtained rare footage taken inside one of China’s labor programs.

NARRATOR: In a far corner of northwestern China, a car drives along a wall lined with barbed wire, heading towards what looks like a standard apartment complex. Access here is restricted, and the cameraperson is filming secretly.

PASSENGER: [translated] Filming is prohibited. Don’t film.

DRIVER: [translated] I’m not going to. I’m just going to follow you inside and take a look.

PASSENGER: [translated] Fine.

NARRATOR: Because this is no ordinary residence. It’s part of a contentious labor resettlement program run by the Chinese government to extend state control over Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs, by moving them from one part of China to work in another. This covert, low-quality footage, that we’ve adjusted to reveal some details and obscure others, gives us some rare insights into how people in this program live and are indoctrinated.

TEXT: [translated] “Love the Party. Love the Country. Love the family of the Chinese Nation.” “Anti-Separatism. Anti-Extremism. Anti-Violence.”

NARRATOR: Over the last few years, the mass incarceration of more than a million Uyghurs and Kazakhs by the Chinese government has led to international outrage. These labor programs are part of that larger story.

AMY GOODMAN: That, a New York Times exposé.

For more, we go to Hong Kong, where we’re joined by Austin Ramzy, The New York Times reporter who co-authored the recent exposé. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Nury Turkel, Uyghur-American attorney, board chair of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Austin, let’s begin with you. Can you lay out the significance of these documents that you got? Explain where you got them from, hundreds of pages, and what they say.

AUSTIN RAMZY: We received hundreds of pages of documents from a member of the Chinese political elite that revealed the origin of the internment camps in Xinjiang and how the Chinese leadership, including Xi Jinping, beginning in 2014, pushed for a solution to what he saw as extremism and terrorism and violence that needed to be controlled, put under control in Xinjiang. And so he called for a tough solution.

And in the years that followed, we saw a beginning of small-level internment camps. And then, beginning in — after 2016, a new party secretary came into Xinjiang and began a large-scale internment operation that led to the — you know, as many as a million people who were put into these camps.

The documents also revealed that — you know, publicly, the Chinese government has described these camps as training centers to give people skills to help them [inaudible] that will steer them away from extremism. But in the language of the documents themselves, it describes these as — these programs as punishment. And it shows that the authorities are plainly aware of the suffering that is caused, not only to the people in the camps, but to their families and children, who are left without parents.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you explain what these camps are? You’ve got indoctrination camps, and you’ve got labor camps. And explain how you were able to document what you say is as many as a million people, Uyghur Muslims, Kazakh Muslims, in these camps.

AUSTIN RAMZY: Well, there are multiple programs happening. There’s the internment program, which has as many as a million people in these camps. The labor program is separate but related, and it involves taking people from — primarily from southern Xinjiang and sending them to northern Xinjiang, to other parts of China, to work in factories, to work, as the video showed, as street cleaners, to put them in more formal labor, as opposed, often, to the farm work that they did before. It’s a separate system of control, not as extreme as the camps themselves, but from everything we’ve seen, there is coercion involved in forcing these people into this sort of work. These people, some of them include family members of people in camps. So there are connections, and it is related to the overall program of control. But there are many different programs happening in Xinjiang.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Austin, earlier you talked about the fact that, you know, some of these — when these Uyghurs are disappeared from their homes and they have children who return from study either in Hong Kong or other parts of China, they come back and they discover that their family members are gone. What explanation are they given? There’s actually a document that’s distributed?

AUSTIN RAMZY: That’s right. That was one of the most telling documents in the cache that we received. And it outlines basically what local officials in Xinjiang should say to these young people who return home from other parts of China to learn that family members have been put into camps. It was a document from 2017, when the program really began ramping up.

And it told officials to tell these young people that their family members had — it uses almost pseudomedical language to say that they’ve been infected by a virus, and just as if you were infected with an actual virus, you would want a period of treatment. It must be closed treatment so that this won’t spread to other people. And it describes these programs as being for their own benefit. But at the same time, there’s messages to sort of warn these young people that they themselves should not complain, because only through their agreement will their family members eventually get out.

AMY GOODMAN: Austin Ramzy, can you talk about the impact of the forced labor on the global supply chain and the participation by stores, including Muji, Uniqlo, Walmart?

AUSTIN RAMZY: Well, Xinjiang produces about 80 to 85% of China’s cotton. China is, of course, a huge clothing manufacturer. And the government has been trying to increase the amount of clothing and textile production in Xinjiang, so some of these labor programs involve clothing and textile factories and are tied with the production of cotton in Xinjiang.

And so, Muji and Uniqlo have previously advertised Xinjiang cotton. Muji did not respond to us, but they said last year that they work very hard to ensure that there’s no forced labor in their supply chain. Uniqlo said that they do not work with partners in Xinjiang.

But the short answer is that the significance of China in production of all things and the significance of Xinjiang in terms of clothing and textile production means that it’s very risky for companies that have any production connected with Xinjiang, and requires really close investigation of their supply chains.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to bring in Nury Turkel, a Uyghur-American attorney and activist, board chair at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Could you, Nury, respond to the significance of this exposé?

NURY TURKEL: These are what we lawyers call an evidence. This is not a speculation. This is not a report done by a third party or NGO. This is a hard evidence, comes straight out from the Chinese government’s own archives.

What we have today is that in the past two-and-a-half years we’ve been relying on open-source information on construction bids and the future expansion of the camps, as well as the personal witness accounts, survivors’ accounts, to come up with a close-to-reality figure. But now we have evidence. These evidence are so significant and so revealing.

Several things comes to mind. One is that this is not a local government officials trying to impress the central government and formulated these policies. This has come, apparently, directly coming from the Chinese Communist Party, General Secretary Xi Jinping, and his local entrusted officials, Chen Quanguo and others. So, we’ve been saying — these documents confirm —

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds, Nury.

NURY TURKEL: These documents have confirmed what we have been telling the world in the last two-and-a-half years, but it’s incumbent upon the government officials, lawmakers, judges and prosecutors to look into this to see if this constitutes crimes against humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2. Thank you to Nury Turkel as well as to Austin Ramzy of The New York Times.