[Marxism] Inside China’s Push to Turn Muslim Minorities Into an Army of Workers
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Tue Dec 31 09:08:45 MST 2019
NY Times, Dec. 31, 2019
Inside China’s Push to Turn Muslim Minorities Into an Army of Workers
By Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy
KASHGAR, China — 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 penalized if they refused to go along.
“Make people who are hard to employ renounce their selfish ideas,” the
labor 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 remold Xinjiang’s
Muslim minorities — mostly Uighurs and Kazakhs — into an army of workers
for factories and other big employers. Under pressure from the
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
These labor programs 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
The labor 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 labor” 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 laborers 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
Experts say those harsh methods can amount to forced labor, potentially
tainting the global supply chain that uses Xinjiang workers,
particularly for cotton goods. The 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 Center for Strategic and
International Studies and the co-author of a study on Xinjiang’s labor
Forced labor could arise “even if the coercion was implicit or the
programs offered workers a decent income,” she added.
The labor programs 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 urbanized like China’s Han majority.
Many Chinese people see that as laudable. Uighur critics see it as
“What they are trying to do is assimilate the Uighur people,” said
Mustafa Aksu, a program coordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
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 gray-and-orange
uniforms lined up for a pep rally. “A successful future,” they shouted
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, Times reporters were barred by
guards from visiting the Jinfujie factory or the surrounding industrial
Dozens of factory zones have emerged across Xinjiang, attesting to the
government’s ambitions to remake the region. Mr. 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 labor programs 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 labor, as well as
generous tax breaks and subsidies.
“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 Mr. 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.
‘A great deal of pressure’
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 jobs
fair and more like a military call-up.
Trainee laborers often first attend political courses similar to those
used in the indoctrination camps. They practice military drills, learn
patriotic Chinese songs, and listen to lectures warning against Islamic
zeal and preaching gratitude to the Communist Party. New laborers are
sometimes shown in Chinese media reports wearing military-type uniforms
and standing to attention as they are escorted to their employers.
Many are separated from their families. A directive from the Qapqal
government ordered children of working couples to be put in care — home
villages for the young, 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 by the local government.
Labor 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.
Mr. 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.
Chinese official media reports that workers make $400 and up 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 labor programs.
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.
Mr. 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
Starting in late summer, villagers in Xinjiang file onto 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 “mobilization
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 percent 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 labor programs.
Large Chinese textile makers, such as Huafu Fashion Company, 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. The 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.
The parent company of the Japanese retailer Uniqlo said the brand
stopped working with production partners in Xinjiang. Muji of Japan did
not respond to emails requesting comment. In August, its parent company,
Ryohin Keikaku, said it was committed to banning forced labor, including
among its business partners.
Until recently, Qapqal County had sent a total of over 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 Company, 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 ended the program to take workers from
Xinjiang in October, after managers in the United States noted reports
about the region’s labor programs.
Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said in email: “Responsible
recruitment and voluntary labor are two very important issues for Walmart.”
Transform Holdco, the parent company of Kmart, declined to comment.
After The Times made inquiries, inspectors acting for Walmart visited
the factory. The inspectors from the ICTI Ethical Toy Program 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 program.
“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.
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