FEB. 2, 2019. DAVID CLIFF/NURPHOTO Activists protest the treatment of Uyghur Muslims by Chinese authorities in the East Turkestan region of China’s Xinjiang Province at a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in London, England
Working Uyghur adults may not be the only population that Xinjiang authorities are forcing into factories as part of a broader campaign of cultural and religious persecution against China’s ethnic minorities, a new report suggests. Teenage girls could also have become targets in at least one garment facility.
Some 90 Uyghur girls, aged 16 to 18, are being “locked up” at Wanhe Garment Co. in the province’s southwestern Maralbeshi county, where they’re compelled to toil 14 hours a day, seven days a week under a “secret agreement” with a local high school, Radio Free Asia reported over the weekend, citing sources, including a village chief and the factory’s security head, who spoke under the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals.
The teenagers, who were reportedly recruited from Yarkant 2nd Vocational High School, join roughly a dozen women in their 30s and 40s and some men, most of them also Uyghurs, at the facility, where they’re said to sleep in dormitories on the compound and are prevented from leaving. They allegedly labor for 300 to 400 yuan ($42 to $56) a month under the withering gaze of a middle-aged Uyghur woman, referred to by workers as “Teacher,” who lashes out at them with verbal and physical abuse when they step out of line.
“The ‘teacher’ is known to have a very bad temper,” the village official, who was responsible for persuading parents to part with their daughters, told Radio Free Asia. “She physically assaults the workers using a bat as a means of inflicting harm. The workers live in fear of her, and due to this intimidating environment, no one dares to make an escape.”
When workers do make a break for it, it’s never for long, the sources said. Last April, during the holy month of Ramadan, four girls snuck out to return to their homes in the village of Charibagh in Yarkant county, the village chief and security head said. Within days, the official said, “Teacher” and other factory personnel were at the village threatening to send the girls’ parents to “reeducation” camps if they didn’t return.
“So we packed their belongings and took them to the train station,” the village chief told Radio Free Asia. “Their parents were scared that [‘Teacher’] would send them for reeducation, so they handed over their daughters.”
Once back, the teenagers were subjected to “criticism and education,” the security chief said. Neither Wanhe Garment Co. nor Yarkant 2nd Vocational High School could be reached for comment.
Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an anti-communist nonprofit in Washington, D.C., called Radio Free Asia’s report an important added data point for research into forced labor.
“This finding is consistent with my research,” he told Sourcing Journal. “From the 2000s, the state has been coercing young Uyghurs after middle school—i.e. high school ages—to work especially in textile factories, often in eastern China, but also locally. More recently, compliance with state employment orders is enforced with the threat to send dissenters to a camp, as stated in this story.”
Since 2017, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups have been detained at these so-called “reeducation” centers, where they frequently undergo months or even years of indoctrination meant to mold them into model citizens who speak Mandarin and are loyal to the ruling Communist party. Beijing has previously defended these measures as part of its fight against terrorism and extremism, allowing “reformed” former detainees to reenter society. Others, including the United Nations human rights office, have linked these efforts to patterns of torture, sexual violence, religious suppression and other crimes against humanity. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have accused China of committing genocide.
“As hideous as it is, targeting girls as young as 16 makes sense from the perspective of a government attempting to wipe out the Uyghur identity and control what’s left of it,” Peter Irwin, senior program officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, told Sourcing Journal.
Forced Uyghur labor has come under increasing scrutiny, particularly in the United States, where the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which went into effect a year ago, bars the entry of goods made in whole or in part in Xinjiang on the rebuttable presumption that they are the product of forced labor. Major brands and retailers have taken pains to distance themselves from Xinjiang, and from the use of Xinjiang cotton, which makes up 90 percent of China’s total output of the fiber. For companies with prominent sourcing and market connections in China, such as Nike and Zara owner Inditex, this has resulted in both state-sanctioned backlash from Chinese consumers and ongoing interrogation about potential ties to businesses that may be still benefiting from Uyghur persecution. Chinese-founded e-commerce platforms, like Shein and Temu, are also being viewed with suspicion on Capitol Hill, where the de minimis “loophole,” which exempts shipments valued under $800 from paying duties and reporting enhanced information, has become another bone of contention in increasingly strained U.S.-China relations.
Irwin said that a high-school agreement isn’t something he’s seen before and that it could mark an “expansion” of coercive labor programs aimed at adults. He said that this could potentially be a “bridge” between a highly controlled education environment and a highly controlled work environment.
“They are one and the same in a way,” he said. “The forced labor regime over the last six years has made sure Uyghurs are confined in these highly controlled environments, just as the education system has done for many years before this. You see this in the way professors and teachers are imprisoned for teaching the wrong things, or textbooks being rewritten to reflect a Han-centric view of history and society.”
“Work and school are the two places where the Chinese government exerts the most influence and can most easily control the population,” Irwin added.