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What goes on inside the rows of factories and apartments built on this desert flatland in western China is shrouded in secrecy, hidden behind steel walls and electric fences.

But the manufacturing park itself, a place accused of employing forced labour on a mass scale and transforming Muslim people into an industrial work force, stands in clear view.

Built on a plain of wind-blown sand nearly as close to Baghdad as it is to Beijing, the Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park has been held up by China as a haven for poverty alleviation. The U.S. government says it uses highly coercive recruitment, restricts workers’ movements and keeps employees living under duress.

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How the Globe slipped under Xinjiang’s surveillance state to expose forced labour at Lop County industrial park

The park has been amongst the most prominent targets of action by the United States on Xinjiang, the region in northwestern China where, researchers and critics say, the government has committed grave human-rights violations against the country’s largely-Muslim population of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others. In July, U.S. border officials seized 13 tons of weaves and other beauty products made by its companies.

The 100-hectare park, which manufactures wigs for export around the world, has been kept off-limits to foreign journalists. China has denied the use of forced labour. But The Globe and Mail recently reached its entrance and photographed its buildings from ground level, providing a first-hand glimpse of a place where a prison-like facility, police station, residential facilities surrounded by electric fencing and manufacturing operations sit alongside a single road that cuts through a sprawling industrial area.

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

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THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; google earth

Researchers say forced labour constitutes the latest stage in the Chinese government’s efforts to exert control in an area with a large population of Muslim people that Beijing has described as infected by extremism.

By this summer, 32 companies had taken up residence in the Lop County Hair Product park, with plans to expand to 50 such firms and reach annual sales of $680-million, according to a July report by the Xinjiang People’s Broadcasting Station.

When The Globe arrived, cars, trucks and people were moving in and out of the park. Sounds of construction emanated from a partly completed warehouse nearby. Music and a recorded voice blared instructions from a nearby loudspeaker.

There were signs, however, that this is not a standard industrial area.

The park’s entrance is closely guarded, with vehicles screened on entry and departure. A building inside, identified by researchers as Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories Co. Ltd., is painted with propaganda, which says “listen to the Party, be grateful to the Party, follow the lead of the Party.”

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Hetian Haolin was in July accused of using forced labour by the U.S. Commerce Department, which restricted its access to U.S. commodities and technology. In September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection ordered a halt to imports of all hair products from the Lop County park, also citing forced labour.

Local authorities placed great energy into barring access to the area by The Globe and another Western journalist, who were met by police and asked questions on arrival at a nearby airport.

As they neared the Lop County industrial area, several people stood in the road to block entry. When the journalists entered instead through a rough sand construction road, two men appeared and demanded the deletion of photos.

The men attempted repeatedly to physically halt The Globe reporter and his colleague from continuing to walk in, by pushing and grabbing.

More men arrived near the Hair Product park’s entrance, including one who described himself as senior leadership and said the roads were not public but private. The man declined to identify himself or the company with which he worked.

Another man who called himself a local leader professed no knowledge of sanctions directed toward the area, saying: “We don’t really have outside dealings.”


A man plays basketball in a facility in Hotan, the city of which Lop County is part, that was previously used for forced political indoctrination and skills training. China says all people have 'graduated' from such centres, which are also sometimes called re-education camps.


Chinese state media have said the park provides “free room and board” to more than 8,000 workers “from surrounding towns and villages,” an indication that those labourers reside near the factories rather than at home. A report by Xinjiang Daily described a person, Mamatjan, who worked as a supervisor of a wig-production facility inside the hair product park. He began working there after a year and a half in the Lop County Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre.

Western scholars estimate such training centres, sometimes called re-education camps, incarcerated a million or more Uyghurs for forcible political indoctrination and skills training, although the Chinese government says they have now all “completed their studies.”

The Globe observed one such centre with at least 10 buildings situated near factories in the city of Hotan that appeared to now be unused. Lop County forms part of Hotan.

But government documents, state media reports and Uyghur testimony show that at least some of those “graduates” have subsequently been placed into factories, including those located at the Lop County hair product park.

Chinese documentation indicates the presence of detention and forced indoctrination facilities in the industrial park. A car parts company previously listed its address as the “Number 3 Education and Training Centre,” according to a corporate record found and archived by Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based scholar and senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The company now lists its address as a poverty alleviation industrial park.

A photo published by Xinjiang authorities in 2017 also showed hundreds of detainees seated on the ground in blue uniforms in what is called Lop County Number Four Vocational Skills Education and Training Centre. Western researchers believe that centre is located near the hair product park entrance, which is situated along Jingluo Main Road.

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Just 1,500 metres northwest of the entrance, a fortress-like building with high grey walls and guard towers has also been built on Jingluo Road. Western satellite imagery shows the facility, which appeared to be a prison, emerged between 2017 and 2019. It does not appear on Chinese maps. Between the fortress and the entrance, the road passes another fortified compound that appears to be a multistorey police barracks.

“Why do you need a massive police station, a prison and several internment camps around a factory complex if in fact everyone there is working by choice?” said Laura Murphy, a scholar of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University who has studied the Lop County industrial area.

What lies on the ground there is “incontrovertible evidence that this is a massive system of control, and not just your everyday factory work.”

She has also found records that could indicate companies evading sanction measures. Since July, import records show new hair product shipments have begun to flow into the U.S. from at least two companies that list addresses elsewhere in China – one in Shandong, another in Henan. They “only first appear in the shipping records after Haolin got ‘shut down’ by the import ban. And both of them don’t otherwise exist in any corporate records I’ve searched so far,” Prof. Murphy said.

Canada does not provide similar disclosure of customs records.

Xinjiang authorities did not respond to a faxed request for comment. A person who answered the phone at the local Communist Party committee office said senior management was busy, and hung up. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not answer faxed questions. Calls to more than a dozen companies with addresses inside the industrial zone yielded no comment.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said a man at Luopu Dailisi Hair Products Company, when asked about the use of forced labour. He then grew angry, saying: “Get out of here, you big liar. Don’t call me again or I’ll yell at you.”

In China, state media have accused the U.S. of using forced labour accusations as a cudgel to restrain Chinese development and damage Xinjiang, where more than 20 per cent of the world’s cotton is harvested. In September, the Communist Party-run Global Times cited a Xinjiang textile factory manager who said employees worked voluntarily.

“All employees sign labour contracts in accordance with related laws and regulations,” Zheng Yuesheng, manager of a Hotan hair product producer told the newspaper, which did not name the company.


Watch: Satellite images show the development of the industrial park over time. The Globe and Mail

At the other end of Jingluo Main Road, past a large factory whose main building is decorated with propaganda that calls for “long-term stability” – language commonly used in China to suppress dissent – lies another large complex with at least seven apartment-style buildings and an athletic grounds. It is surrounded by a fence with four rows of electric wire.

In front, a billboard features text from the Communist Party’s education policy. A red banner posted on one building calls for people to speak Mandarin, whose instruction has formed a key component of forced indoctrination and training centres.

Atop one of its buildings, propaganda characters proclaim: “Labour is glorious.”

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“That’s a key slogan. You find that in the mobilization of rural surplus labourers,” said Mr. Zenz, one of the foremost western authorities on Xinjiang. His research has uncovered government documents that show the reach of the region’s labour plans.

Xinjiang has officially pledged to wrest 2.61-million people from poverty between 2016 and 2020, two thirds of them “through different forms of training and employment,” he wrote in a report last year. Each “household must have at least one person in stable employment.” Part of that effort involves putting to work people deemed “rural surplus labour.”

The facility surrounded by electric fence is not empty. When The Globe passed by, two groups of people were outside, assembled in lines. They numbered several dozen in total, mostly men dressed in dark clothing.

“Some of the training of rural surplus labour takes place in centralized facilities with military-style training,” Mr. Zenz said.

Such training typically lasts from two to six months in what he called “a closed labour transfer system.” Across Xinjiang, hundreds of thousands of workers have been “transferred” for work in the past two years. Lop County, which is both poor and heavily Uyghur, has been among the most active areas.

With a population of 297,000, it had transferred 38,000 people by this June, Li Zhouzhou, director of the county’s Poverty Alleviation Office, told state media. Although it’s not clear where those people were sent, a 2018 government report said at least 20 per cent of those transferred in southern Xinjiang were moved to other parts of the region, or to other provinces in China.

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Across the broader city of Hotan, of which Lop County forms one part, officials have also reported the construction of 893 new “satellite factories” built in close proximity to smaller centres.

But even industry built close to home can separate families. Chinese documents point to the construction of child care facilities to enable parents to work in factories.

In Gazong, a Hotan village, a woman told state media she worked at a garment plant owned by Hetian Taida Apparel Co. while her child attended a “nursery school opposite the factory. I can go to work and earn money with peace of mind,” the woman, Arzigul Abliz, said. The U.S. Commerce Department has also taken action against Hetian Taida for its “practice of forced labour involving Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.”


Traffic and people move through the entrance to the industrial park. Vehicles are screened on entry and departure.


In Xinjiang, however, local authorities have praised the virtues of the industrial system that has taken shape.

Factory managers seek “to motivate all employees to love work, to actively improve their skills, to strive to be technically proficient and to create a better life with their hands,” Kang Chunling, secretary of the Party Branch of the Hotan Hair Products Association, told China Daily earlier this year. Adalet Aziz, a worker who won a hair products skills competition, expressed gratitude for what she had been taught, saying, “I didn’t know anything when I first came here to work.”

There is evidence at least some of the people working in Xinjiang’s new industrial economy have skills the state has ignored.

Earlier this year, Abduweli Tohti Arish was transferred from a political indoctrination centre into a garment factory outside Urumqi, the regional capital. Mr. Arish is a computer science graduate from Xinjiang University of Finance and Economics. Before he was detained in 2017, Mr. Arish worked at a company developing a Uyghur language navigation system, a kind of native-tongue Google Maps for Xinjiang, according to his brother, Abdulla Tohti Arish, who prefers to call the region “East Turkestan.”

In the factory, Mr. Arish “made clothes,” his brother said. “But he is an IT engineer.”

Mr. Arish worked during the week, coming home on Saturdays before returning to the factory on Sundays. He had no choice in this, Abdulla said. In early fall, however, Mr. Arish was allowed to live at home after a well-connected relative sponsored him to work at a supermarket in Urumqi. But Mr. Arish still has no right to choose his own path, his brother said. He is home, but still shackled to a job approved by authorities. “This is the only way,” Abdulla said.

The pervasiveness of state control of labour means that in Xinjiang today, it has become nearly “impossible” for any employee to give reasonable consent to work, said Nathan Ruser, a researcher who specializes in satellite image analysis at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. His photographic scrutiny of the changes in recent years has provided context to an uprooting of the region’s geography. In many Xinjiang cities, 20 per cent to 40 per cent of residential areas have been demolished since 2017. With traditional homes bulldozed, people are forced to move into urban areas or apartment complexes in industrial complexes.

Today, “I would consider most of the factories in Xinjiang to be forced labour,” he said.

In March, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China similarly warned that “the risk for complicity in forced labour is high for any company importing goods directly from” Xinjiang “or those partnering with a Chinese company operating in the region.”

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From the archives: Frontier injustice

In 2017, when the Chinese re-education campaign against Uyghurs was beginning to escalate, Nathan VanderKlippe went to Xinjiang to learn how Mao-era techniques of social engineering were being used against them. This is his report.

Canada, too, has erected new obstacles to the movement of involuntary workers. On July 1, Ottawa formally banned the import of goods produced by forced labour, a measure required by the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

“We remain deeply disturbed by the troubling reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang, including reports of forced labour as well as reports of mass transfer of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from Xinjiang to factories across China,” said Jason Kung, spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada.

“We have publicly and consistently called on the Chinese government to end the repression of Uyghurs,” he said.

But Ottawa has not followed Washington’s lead in imposing sanctions against companies in Xinjiang, or in using Magnitsky legislation against local leadership. The reticence to take some steps has drawn criticism from those who advocate a tougher position, including Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.

“It sends a sad message that we are not willing to put concrete action behind our words,” he said in an interview. Forced labour in Xinjiang forms “part of a wider ethnic cleansing operation,” he said, adding that a House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights said in October China has committed “genocide” against Uyghurs.

It’s not enough for Washington to act alone on these matters, Mr. O’Toole said. “The U.S. needs an ally, and I think we can be it when it comes to China.”

Indeed, the continued operations of the hair product park underscore a need for more action, said Prof. Murphy, the contemporary slavery scholar at Sheffield Hallam University.

“If Hetian Haolin can continue to sell to other countries around the world then forced labour is still allowed to thrive in China,” she said. The imposition of an industrial economy on Xinjiang is designed “to create docile indoctrinated subjects,” she said. “What comes in the guise of mercy is in fact just another form of coercion.”

And, she warned, “an internment camp system is something that people all over the world have committed to not abiding by ever again.” What has emerged in Xinjiang is “something that is too reminiscent of the worst horrors of humanity for people to ignore.”


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