Since 2017, the Chinese government has detained many people from a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group, Uighurs, in internment camps. While the Chinese government labels these camps as “vocational training centres”, they effectively operate as concentration camps. Former detainees have described being subject to human rights violations and abuses while in these camps. They say they were tortured during interrogation, forced to live in crowded cells and subjected to a brutal daily regimen of Chinese government indoctrination.

One former detainee, human rights activist Mihrigul Tursun, stated that she and other inmates were beaten, starved, electrocuted and strip searched, as well as forced to take unknown medication. This included pills that made them faint, and a white liquid that caused some women to bleed and others to cease menstruation. She also recalls being electrocuted via an electric chair to the point she lost consciousness.

Academics, human rights activists and journalists have documented grid-style police checkpoints across camp premises, presumably to prevent escapes. Additionally, they believe the Chinese government has engaged in mass DNA collection.

The Chinese government has claimed these camps are justified in the interests of national security because of terror threats from the Uighur population. The Chinese authorities have long feared that ethnic Uighurs would attempt to establish their own national homeland in the northern Chinese province of Xinjiang, as some Uighurs have belonged to separatist movements that label the Chinese province “East Turkestan.” In 2009, ethnic riots in the province resulted in hundreds of deaths, and some separatist terrorist attacks have been committed by extremist Uighurs in recent years.

The sheer scale of mass detainment of Uighurs, however, demonstrates that individuals are being detained in concentration camps because of their ethnic or religious identity, rather than extremism. For example, Uighur citizens have been detained for acts as innocuous as using the mobile app WhatsApp, growing a beard, or giving their children Uighur names. Many Uighurs interned in the camps were detained by the Chinese authorities after sharing banned religious content, such as excerpts from the Quran, via the file-sharing app Zapya, which was targeted by mass surveillance efforts on the part of the Chinese government.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) frequently states that adherents of the Muslim faith and ethnic Uighurs are suffering from some form of mental illness. Radio Free Asia recorded a CCP broadcast to Uighurs from the region on the topic of re-education camps:

“Members of the public who have been chosen for reeducation have been infected by an ideological illness. They have been infected with religious extremism and violent terrorist ideology, and therefore they must seek treatment from a hospital as an inpatient. … The religious extremist ideology is a type of poisonous medicine, which confuses the mind of the people. … If we do not eradicate religious extremism at its roots, the violent terrorist incidents will grow and spread all over like an incurable malignant tumor.”

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2018 estimated that over a million Uighurs have been forcibly detained since 2017, and former Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs in the US, Randall Schriver, estimated that the figure for detainees may now be as high as three million. As the Uighur population in China totals ten million, this means as many as one in three ethnic Uighurs may be being detained in internment camps. A Malaysian diplomat in 2019 stated that two cities in Xinjiang, Kashgar and Hotan, were now “zombie towns”, the streets being virtually empty. This could be the result of mass detention of their inhabitants.

In late 2019, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published internal Chinese government documents that detailed plans for the mass detainment of Uighurs in order to provide what the documents refer to as “ideological education”. The papers order that the programme should be secret and that it must prevent escapes. These papers, in both Chinese and English, can be read on the ICIJ website by clicking here (opens in new tab).

The Use of Uighur Detainees As Slave Labour

The internment of Uighurs appears to be entering a new phase, as Chinese government officials now claim that all “trainees” from its camps have “graduated.” This new phase may be linked to evidence that the imprisoned Uighur population has increasingly been used as forced labour in many factories, with some factories appearing to use Uighur workers sent directly from re-education camps. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimated that between 2017 and 2019, at least 80,000 Uighurs had been forced to work in factories that form part of the supply chain for around 83 major global brands including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Apple, BMW, Nike, Nintendo, Samsung, Victoria’s Secret and Volkswagen.

One of the report’s case studies alleges that in January 2020 around 600 Uighurs from Xinjiang were working at a shoe factory, making Nike trainers. The report notes that the factory complex was equipped with watchtowers, razor wire and inward-facing barbed wire fences to prevent escapes. Although Uighur labourers working at the complex were free to walk around the streets surrounding the factory, their movements were closely monitored by a police unit located at the side gate, equipped with facial recognition cameras. The report adds:

“At the factory, the Uighur laborers make Nike shoes during the day. In the evening, they attend a night school where they study Mandarin, sing the Chinese national anthem and receive ‘vocational training’ and ‘patriotic education.’ The curriculum closely mirrors that of Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps’.”

The report makes reference to the International Labour Organisation’s 11 indicators of forced labour, many of which apply to the treatment of Uighur workers in Chinese factories. They include:

  • Being subject to intimidation and threats: some Uighurs have reportedly been threatened with arbitrary detention, in addition to being monitored by security personnel and via digital surveillance tools;
  • Being placed in a position of dependency and vulnerability: detainees are told that some of their family members back in Xinjiang will be under threat if they do not comply;
  • Having freedom of movement restricted: the factories employing Uighur labourers are surrounded by barbed wire fences, in addition to the use of high-tech surveillance;
  • Being subject to isolation: Uighur workers reportedly live in segregated dormitories and are transported to and from factories in special segregated trains;
  • Abusive working conditions: Uighur workers are allegedly subject to political indoctrination in night classes they are forced to attend while working;
  • Excessive hours: Uighur workers are allegedly forced to undertake after-work Mandarin language classes and political indoctrination sessions when not working for the factory.

Perhaps most shockingly, the business of “buying” or “selling” of Uighur labourers can be lucrative, as the Xinjiang provincial government pays local governments and private brokers to organise the labour assignments. According to a 2018 Xinjiang provincial government notice, for every Uighur labourer transferred within Xinjiang, the organiser is awarded Ұ20 (£2.28); strikingly, for every Uighur labourer transferred outside of Xinjiang, the figure jumps to Ұ300 (£34.17). Factories that take in Uighur labourers are compensated by the Xinjiang government, receiving a Ұ1,000 (£113.90) cash inducement for each worker they contract for a year, and Ұ5,000 (£569.51) for a three-year contract. To put these figures in context, the statutory minimum wage in Xinjiang’s regional capital was Ұ1620 (£184.52) a month in 2018.

As the world fights the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to see why the mass internment and forced labour of Uighurs won’t make national headlines. But as the world begins to recover, heightened tensions between China and the West may arise. Whether this could ultimately lead to a change in the treatment of Uighurs is unclear, but it’s easy to argue that scrutiny of what is taking place is long overdue. Either way, many of those Western companies that have utilised Chinese factories will have engaged in the employment of forced labour.

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