Chinese authorities have loaded large numbers of Uyghur workers onto trains bound for factories thousands of kilometres away as part of a plan to assimilate Muslim minorities into mainstream Chinese culture and thin their populations in Xinjiang, the northwestern region that has been their home for centuries, an internally circulated research document shows.
Relocating Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minority groups to industrial workplaces “not only reduces Uyghur population density in Xinjiang, but also is an important method to influence, fuse and assimilate Uyghur minorities,” researchers with the China Institute of Wealth and Economics at Nankai University wrote in a detailed report submitted to senior levels of the Chinese government and subsequently obtained by The Globe and Mail. It provides a new understanding of the transfer of Uyghur labour from Xinjiang’s Hotan prefecture in recent years.
Government and state media reports, meanwhile, show that thousands of Uyghur workers sent to other parts of China have been enrolled in training programs there that mix Mandarin lessons with instruction by police and Communist Party cadres on the “rule of law” and ethnic and religious policies. The intent is to guide them “to become models of hard work, national unity and law abiding,” according to a National Ethnic Affairs Commission document.
Together the documents show that, beneath China’s claims that it is seeking to combat poverty in Xinjiang, the government’s policies toward Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are designed to sever them from their homes and traditional way of life, moulding them into state-approved members of the “Chinese nation.”
Government-organized transfers have now placed more than 600,000 Uyghurs and members of other minority groups from Xinjiang at workplaces in other parts of China, said a Chinese researcher who studies labour transfer from the region.
Hundreds of thousands more have been sent to other parts of Xinjiang. Those workers are on contracts with terms of up to three years but can return home annually. And they are paid higher salaries than they would normally get at jobs closer to home, the researcher said. The Globe is not identifying the researcher because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Uyghurs have been sent to provinces all across China, in some cases more than 3,500 kilometres away, to factories that make a broad range of electronic components, clothing and textiles. The number of people involved, scattered so widely, means supply chains all across China are now using workers from Xinjiang, raising questions for foreign companies and importers about the products they sell – including brands on store shelves in Canada.
The initiative has not been without problems. Police in other parts of China have refused to allow bulk transfers of workers from Xinjiang, in some cases blocking them from stepping off trains. In other instances, authorities would conduct inspections of factories that employed workers transferred from Xinjiang until the factories sent them back, according to the Nankai University report, which recommended that Beijing intervene and prohibit police across China from barring the arrival of Uyghurs.
The report was based in part on field research conducted in Xinjiang from May 24 to 30, 2018. It was posted to the internet in late 2019 and discovered by a Uyghur researcher. It has since been deleted, although some of its findings were published in an academic journal.
In a statement, China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the report “only reflects the author’s personal views,” many of which “are not consistent with the facts.”
Chinese authorities have rejected evidence, including from foreign governments, that the mass relocation of workers from Xinjiang constitutes forced labour. Officials have said their aim is to eliminate poverty and that such workers have signed employment contracts. State documents say Uyghurs are well-treated and offered halal food when they are transferred to distant workplaces. The relocation of labour has provided people from impoverished parts of Xinjiang with improved skills and income, the researcher said.
Still, the Nankai University report also describes people in Xinjiang weighed down by “traditional” thinking, with some “unwilling to leave their homes.” Governments have provided “strong guidance,” but rectifying those attitudes often requires “persistent measures,” the report says.
But workers at some of those factories have told The Globe that people from Xinjiang are segregated – in some cases assigned to separate production lines – while working as many as 29 days a month and barred from travelling freely. Some Uyghurs sent to factories in recent years have said they had no choice.
Indeed, China’s industrial complex is the intended end point for large numbers of working-age people in areas of Xinjiang with predominantly Muslim populations, the Nankai University report shows. In Hotan, for example, authorities deemed almost half the local work force “surplus labour” several years ago. The report describes an overarching plan to turn those declared surplus into politically palatable workers for industry.
It begins with identifying factories in search of workers and opening recruitment stations in villages. Potential workers are then funnelled through police screenings, one to three months of “concentrated training” that includes political thought education and, finally, bulk transport to factories. The government subsidizes transportation costs and organizes child care for children left behind.
Workers can be transferred only after passing “strict political examination and screening,” the researchers report, noting that training programs can adopt “semi-closed and military-style” methods. Once relocated, labourers are guaranteed the right to leave and return, the document says. But when they travel by train, they must be accompanied by security guards.
The process is intended to do more than provide jobs.
It is important for authorities across China to “strengthen the guidance to assimilate [those workers] into all the relatively developed areas in Eastern and Central provinces,” the Nankai University report recommends. “By letting them change their environment and lifestyle and by letting them work as labourers, their thinking and knowledge can be gradually reformed and their values and outlook on life transformed.”
The report demonstrates that “labour transfer, population control and the whole re-education [effort] are all part of the same package,” said Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who has analyzed the document. For Uyghurs, there is “a plan to transform their personal identity from farmer to industrial worker,” he said. “The goal is to make this permanent.” And with those workers now scattered across China, any supply chain that “involves Uyghur labour needs to be investigated for potential forced labour transfer,” Mr. Zenz said.
Parliaments in Canada and the Netherlands have called China’s conduct in Xinjiang “genocide.” The mass relocation of workers provides “credible grounds to conclude that, as a part of the attack, the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer and persecution are occurring,” international criminal lawyer Erin Farrell Rosenberg writes in “Coercive Labor and Forced Displacement in Xinjiang’s Cross-Regional Labor Transfer Program,” a report published in conjunction with new research by Mr. Zenz and which analyzes the Nankai University report and others.
The university report describes a system for processing and transferring “surplus labour” that is different than, but has been run in parallel with, the detention of large numbers of people from Xinjiang ethnic minorities in political indoctrination centres – facilities typically built with high walls and watchtowers that held people for a year or longer.
But while China says those detainees have now “graduated,” the number of Uyghurs in factories has risen.
The Globe, reporting jointly with other international media, visited six factory locations in three provinces. The Globe approached a half-dozen workers from Xinjiang to ask them about their working conditions. At Fujie (Wuhan) Electronics Accessory Co., Ltd., three people confirmed that they continued to work until just before the Lunar New Year celebrations, when most nearby manufacturers had already halted operations. The workers declined further comment.
Roughly 60 per cent of Fujie’s workers are from Xinjiang, according to a state media report from Nov. 17, 2020. The company, the first in the city to welcome workers from the region, provides halal food and organizes ethnic unity and friendship activities so workers will not “miss home while far away.”
Four workers at two other factories, however, said labourers from Xinjiang are routinely segregated.
“We separate ourselves from them,” said Mr. Wang, a worker at Dongguan Luzhou Shoes Co. Ltd. “They have their own dormitories – for example, this building is for Xinjiang people, and this building is for Hui and Han Chinese. At work, it’s also Xinjiang people working together. They have their own canteen and their own boss.” Dongguan Luzhou previously produced Brooks brand shoes, he said. Today, it makes Skechers, said a woman who manages a neighbouring factory. To protect them from retribution, The Globe is not identifying people at and around factories with Uyghur workers by their full names.
When The Globe visited recently, large numbers of men in blue police-style uniforms patrolled the factory campus roads. Access to certain dormitories appeared to be restricted. Workers get two days off each month, Mr. Wang said.
In a statement, Skechers said its corporate policy has “zero tolerance for forced labour.” The company did not answer questions about whether it sources shoes from Dongguan Luzhou. Brooks did not respond to a request for comment, nor did any of the other brands or Chinese factories cited in this report.
At Wuhan Hengfa Technology Co., Ltd., people from Xinjiang live and eat separately but work together with others, said a worker there, also named Wang. The factory produces injection-moulded foam for appliance companies such as Haier, Midea and AOC, a maker of TVs and monitors, according to local media reports and Mr. Wang, who praised the treatment of Uyghur workers there. For one festival day last year, “the government brought them lambs, buckets of oil and grapes,” he said. “Those people just danced in groups and invited me to taste their food.”
Canadian Tire, which sells Midea appliances, said in a statement that it had checked with the company and that “the divisions we work with have re-confirmed that they do not purchase components for our products from either of the Wuhan companies named, or from companies in the Xinjiang region.” Home Depot said it had asked Midea and Haier, and “they have confirmed that they do not use the two factories cited for any product supplied to the Home Depot.” Other Canadian retailers, including Walmart and Costco, did not respond to requests for comment.
But life is also constrained for workers from Xinjiang, said the owner of a halal restaurant near the Hengfa factory. Workers who sign contracts for a year, for example, “are only free to leave after they finish the one-year period,” the restaurateur said. Though they can walk to nearby shops on their days off, “they can’t go into the city,” he said. “They are not allowed to.”
A sign posted at the entrance to the factory says: “Study changes ideology, ideology changes action, action changes fate.”
It is a common industrial slogan in China.
But it has taken on new meaning for workers from Xinjiang, whose arrival in other parts of China has been greeted by new training programs, many designed specifically for Uyghurs and other Muslim people.
Some instruction is delivered by local communities, some by companies themselves. Hubei province alone has established 78 training sites and 57 corporate classrooms where people from Xinjiang receive linguistic and political training. Such education can ease integration into other parts of China. But language classes have also been used to deliver political education, with a textbook called Love the Motherland, Love Hubei, Love the Neighbourhood. With 110 instructors, the program seeks to “co-ordinate the promotion of language training and patriotism, ethnic unity and education in rule of law.”
It is a “political task” for police, educators, bureaucrats and cadres to provide language and cultural policy training to migrant workers, said Yuan Defang, minister of the United Front Work Department in Jingzhou, a city in southern Hubei, in 2018.
“What this is about is not simply giving Uyghurs the opportunity to learn Chinese,” said Laura Murphy, a scholar of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University who has lived and studied in Xinjiang. “It is actually meant to be a replacement for speaking Uyghur. This is about entirely upending Uyghur culture and the Uyghur language – diluting, diminishing and in the end perhaps destroying the diversity that Uyghurs present for the country.”
In another Hubei city, Xianning, the United Front Work Department published a report that cited Mamti, a Uyghur worker from Xinjiang, offering a different view.
“Today, we sing the national anthem, raise the national flag and learn knowledge together,” Mamti said. “It’s very meaningful. The Uyghurs and Han are one family.”