“Like we were enemies in a war”

China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

“Like we were enemies in a war” China’s Mass Internment, Torture and Persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang

Illustrations by Molly Crabapple


‘Camp to labour’

The testimony of former detainees shows that for many, there is a clear compulsory labour component to the system of detention and of “transformation-through-education” targeting Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang. This component is also indicated in the Telegram, which states that if a detainee was designated ready for release, the group that did the final evaluation also determined whether the detainee would enter a “skills improvement class” for “intensive training” before being released. [[[”The Telegram” (previously cited), para 18.]]]

Despite this being described by the Chinese authorities as a “voluntary” skills training and job placement programme, some detainees who spoke to Amnesty described arrangements that left them with little or no choice or control but to accept employment or “training placements” with minimal pay, poor working conditions, a discriminatory work environment, and often continued restrictions on their freedom of movement under threat of further punishment. These arrangements, therefore, should be considered in the context of forced or compulsory labour. [[[The ILO has identified 11 “indicators” that, alone or in conjunction with others, point to the possible existence of forced labour: abuse of vulnerability; deception; restriction of movement; isolation; physical and sexual violence; intimidation and threats; retention of identity documents; withholding of wages; debt bondage; abusive working and living conditions; and excessive overtime; International Labour Organization, “ILO indicators of Forced Labour,” ]]]

Amnesty International interviewed 11 former detainees who were transferred to different types of labour after their release from a camp, including three who were sent to work in factories. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] A few were sent to work in village administration offices, police stations, or other government buildings, where they often performed menial tasks. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] One was sent to work on a state-owned farm and one was made to do chores by cadres for a Han Chinese man in the village. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]] One person was made to work as a guard in an internment camps after being detained. “They told me I could be free if I worked as a security guard at a camp,” Anarbek said. [[[Amnesty International Interviews.]]]

Arzu told Amnesty that after spending six months in one camp he was transferred to another camp, where he was taught to sew in preparation for being sent to a factory. He was then required to live and work in a factory for several months making government uniforms.

During the day [at the second camp] we would sit on a plastic chair. A teacher taught language and how to make clothes. During the 21 days [we spent in the second camp] we went to class two or three times, otherwise we were just in the cell… The teachers from the screen were in [a different] class. They just showed us how to make clothes on the TV. Some guys were there [in this camp] for two years and never touched a machine… Then a list came out for people to transfer to a factory. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, not Uyghurs… Then I was sent to a factory for five months, to make government uniforms at first. Then we started making dresses. I worked for eight hours a day. I had one hour of exercise in the yard… I was allowed to call family and friends, but not people abroad… There was no physical inspection, but we were given phones and asked to install a police app… We worked five days a week. The salary was 1,620 RMB [253 USD] a month… We were really ineffective. We didn’t know how to do it. They had some Chinese woman come in for one week to try to teach us. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Aldiyar told Amnesty he spent three months working in a factory for low pay after being released from the camp. All workers were members of ethnic minorities but senior managers were Han Chinese:

[After I was released from the camp] they ordered me not to leave my house for 10 days… After a week they called me back and they registered me and made a list of people who had been in the camp. Then they gathered all the people on the list, and we went to a garment factory. We didn’t have a choice but to go there… The salary was low. It was impossible to take care of my family with the salary. The first month [we were paid] 200 RMB [31 USD]… The factory was on the outskirts of [redacted] county seat. Only ethnic minorities were working in the factory – Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Hui. The [only] Han were the heads of the factory… The factory made clothes, gloves, and bags. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

The three former detainees who provided Amnesty with accounts of being sent to work in factories after being released from detention were all ultimately able to leave those factories. This was because of a policy that allowed factory workers to return to their homes if they had secured another job and if another employer was willing to sign a letter of guarantee taking responsibility for them. Aldiyar was permitted to leave the factory at night because he lived nearby, although other people were required to live there. Every week Aldiyar had to submit a written report of what he did [to the village administration].

I was at the factory for three months. After three months, I asked if I could do my old profession. They said, ‘Okay, but you need to get a letter from your work saying that they are taking responsibility for you and to give the address of the head of your workplace’… I got the paper [signed] and went back to [the place I used to work] after I finished [high] school. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Ibrahim told Amnesty he worked and lived in a factory for two weeks after being released from a camp. Some other workers in the factory had not been sent from camps; rather, they had been pressured to work in the factory when another member of their family was taken to a camp:

They took us [to the factory]… There were many buildings and many people… I had to go to the third floor… They taught us how to sew clothes. And while we were having lunch I spoke with women and girls [who worked there] and learned that those women’s husbands or girls’ fathers were in a camp. That was why they were taken there. I learned that if one family [member] was in a camp you had to work so the father or husband can get out quickly… I worked there for [some] days…. I had been a businessman before. I explained that and they let me go… The name of the factory was [redacted]… it was in the county seat… it was a linen factory… we produced clothes. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

Other former detainees provided second-hand accounts of people from their camps being sent to work in factories. [[[Amnesty International interviews.]]]

This testimony points to a number of ways in which the authorities in Xinjiang appear to be compelling Uyghurs and other members of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang to engage in certain types of labour, sometimes as an extension of the “education” received in the camps. Based on the evidence presented in this report, Amnesty believes the treatment of some former detainees in Xinjiang is characterised by elements of forced labour which meet the definition of ILO Convention 29. There is a lack of voluntariness accompanied by a threat of detention for non-compliance. In addition, there is evidence in some cases of poor or abusive working conditions, including low pay, isolation, restrictions on movement, and intimidation and threats. In light of this evidence there is a need for an independent, impartial thorough investigation. This situation raises serious questions that should be investigated.

Journalists and scholars have reported that large numbers of detainees have been sent to situations of what has been described as forced labour – inside and outside of camps – in Xinjiang and other parts of the country. [[[See Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, New York Times, “China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labour,” 16 December 2018 ; John Sudworth, BBC News, “China’s ‘tainted’ cotton,” December 2020 ; Shohret Hoshur, Radio Free Asia, “Internment Camp Assigned Uyghur Forced Laborers to Xinjiang Textile Factor: Official,” 14 Novemebr 2019 ; Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, Danielle Cave, Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro & Nathan Ruser, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Uyghurs for Sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang,” 1 March 2020 ; Alison Killing, Megha Rajagopalan, Buzzfeed News, “The Factories in the Camps: Observers have long warned of rising forced labor in Xinjiang. Satellite images show factories built just steps away from cell blocks,” 28 December 2020 (updated 4 January 2021) ;Zenz, Adrian. ‘Beyond the Camps: Beijing’s Long-Term Scheme of Coercive Labor, Poverty Alleviation and Social Control in XUAR.’ Journal of Political Risk Vol.7, No.12, 10 December 2019. ]]] The Xinjiang Victim’s Database has reported 96 instances where people were allegedly sent from internment camps to situations of forced or compulsory labour. These former detainees described being compelled to work in garment factories, silk factories, textile factories, tea factories, electric motor assembly plants, shoe factories, and noodle factories after they were released from detention. Others were made to work as security guards or teachers. [[[Xinjiang Victims Database ]]] Journalists have also reported forced transfers of large numbers Uyghurs and ethnic minorities for factories in other parts of China, with some coming directly from detention camps. [[[See Nathan Vanderklippe, Globe and Mail, “Thousands of Uyghurs Workers in China are being relaocated in an effort to assimilate Muslims, documents show: Xinjiang’s Muslim minorities have been moved to factories thousands of kilometres away to sever their ties to home and undermine their culture, internal documents and Chinese researchers reveal,” 2 March 2021 ; Eva Dou, Jeanne Whalen, and Alicia Chen, Washington Post, “U.S. ban on China’s Xinjiang cotton fractures faction industry supply chains,” 22 February 2021 ; Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, Danielle Cave, Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro & Nathan Ruser, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Uyghurs for Sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang,” 1 March 2020 ]]] Reports have also called into question the supply chains of numerous well-known global brands. [[[See Laura T. Murphy and Nyrola Elima, Sheffield Hallam University Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, “In Broad Daylight: Uyghur Forced Labour and Global Solar Supply Chains,” 2021 ; Alexandra Stevenson, New York Times, “China’s Forced-Labor Backlash Threatens to Put N.B.A in Unwanted Spotlight: Lucrative endorsements deals with Chinese sports brands supporting Xinjiang cotton could pull the league and its athletes back into another geopolitical firestorm,” 9 April 2021 ; Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, Danielle Cave, Dr James Leibold, Kelsey Munro & Nathan Ruser, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Uyghurs for Sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang,” 1 March 2020 ]]]