This is part 4 of an investigation by BuzzFeed News. For part 1 click here. For part 2 click here. For part 3 click here.
This project was supported by the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, the Pulitzer Center and that Open Technology Fund.
ALMATY – China has built more than 100 new facilities in Xinjiang, where people can not only be locked up but also forced to work in special factory buildings on site. BuzzFeed News can reveal this through government records, interviews, and hundreds of satellite images.
In August, BuzzFeed News uncovered hundreds of buildings in Xinjiang bearing the characteristics of prisons or detention centers, many of which have been erected over the past three years in a rapid escalation in China’s campaign against Muslim minorities such as Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others. A new analysis shows that at least 135 of these compounds also contain factory buildings. According to researchers and interviews with former inmates, such facilities are almost certainly large-scale forced labor.
Factories across Xinjiang – both inside and outside the warehouses – share similar characteristics. They are usually long and rectangular, and their metal roofs are usually brightly colored – often blue, sometimes red. In contrast to the masonry and concrete of typical detention buildings, the factories have steel frames that can be erected within a month. The steel frame is sturdy enough to hold the roof without any internal pillars and offers more space for large machines or assembly lines. Some of the largest factory buildings have strips of skylights to let in light.
In total, the factory facilities identified by BuzzFeed News cover more than 21 million square feet – nearly four times the size of the Mall of America. (Ford’s historic River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, once the largest industrial complex in the world, is 16 million square feet.)
And they’re growing in a way that reflects the rapid expansion of the mass detention campaign, which has captivated more than 1 million people since it began in 2016. In 2018 alone, 14 million square meters of new factories were built.
Two former inmates told BuzzFeed News that they had worked in factories while in detention. One of them, Gulzira Auelhan, said she and other women took a bus to a factory where they were sewing gloves. When asked if she was paid, she just laughed.
“They created this evil place and destroyed my life,” she said.
The former inmates said they never had a choice to work and that they earned a penny or no salary. “I felt like hell,” Dina Nurdybai, who was jailed in 2017 and 2018, told BuzzFeed News. Before she was born, Nurdybai ran a small clothing store. At a factory in the detention center where she was being held, she said she worked in a locked cubicle sewing bags on school uniforms. “They created this evil place and destroyed my life,” she said.
When asked about the article, the Chinese Consulate in New York quoted a worker from Karakax County, Xinjiang, who, at a government news conference, described allegations of forced labor in the area as “defamation” and said villagers in the area deserved higher salaries and learn new skills. “We hope that everyone can differentiate between right and wrong, respect the facts and not be fooled by rumors,” added the consulate.
The industry in Xinjiang is booming and the region has one of the fastest GDP growth rates in China. Xinjiang exports a range of products from clothing to machinery. The US is one of the fastest growing markets in the region. Xinjiang’s factories produce many goods that eventually make their way to US consumers. Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola campaigned for Congress this year, among others, to water down a bill banning the import of products made using forced labor. (Apple has said it hasn’t tried to weaken the measure, and Nike has said it “hasn’t lobbyed it”.) The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives in September, but the Senate hasn’t yet discussed about it.
“Companies should stop manufacturing and sourcing in Xinjiang,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “There is no way to produce responsibly in the region until forced labor and widespread oppression come to an end.”
Nova and other labor rights advocates, as well as experts who have investigated the abuses in Xinjiang, argue that forced labor is so widespread in the area that no company manufacturing there could conclude that its supply chain is free from it. That would mean US consumers really can’t know if the goods they buy in Xinjiang are tainted.
The Chinese government In Xinjiang, people are so closely monitored and interviews so closely monitored that it is almost impossible to independently judge whether a factory is dependent on forced labor. This is especially true given that economic programs aimed at lifting people out of poverty by placing farm workers in factory jobs are effective protection for the government to hide why a person may be working far from home. But when factories are in internment facilities – cut off from the world by high walls and barbed wire – it is a belief to say that workers are there willingly.
The internment camp’s factories are deeply embedded in Xinjiang’s economy. Washington, DC-based nonprofit research institute C4ADS compared the locations of the factories identified by BuzzFeed News to a database that compiled address information from the Chinese government business registry. C4ADS identified 1,500 Chinese companies located in or next to the factories. Of these, 92 indicated “import / export” as part of their business area. BuzzFeed News found more information about these companies in corporate documents, government media reports, and other public records. According to 2016 trade data, some of these companies have exported goods around the world, including Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Panama, and France. A company sent pants to California.
One of these companies is Xinjiang Jihua Seven-Five-Five-Five Occupational Wear, which makes military uniforms. Customers include the People’s Liberation Army, People’s Paramilitary Police and the Chinese Public Security Bureau, which manufacture hundreds of thousands of clothing items every year.
The parent company’s 2019 annual report explicitly refers to participation in job transfer programs. The company transferred at least 45 non-Chinese ethnic minorities from southern Xinjiang to work, the report said. According to the report, they lived in shared rooms with three or four people and were given a monthly meal grant of 360 yuan (about $ 55).
An article by the state-controlled China News Service said the company’s employees at the Hejing office were working overtime to fill a clothing order for protective suits after they had already missed a vacation that was offered last year, according to the plant manager. The workers also attend a “bilingual night school” to learn Chinese. Every Monday they raise the flag and praise the Communist Party’s policies and “socialist thinking with Chinese features in the new era of Xi Jinping”.
The way these workers were treated is related to China’s known behavior in the region. The government’s poverty alleviation campaign is shifting impoverished ethnic minorities, referred to as “overtime,” to jobs that range from picking cotton to sewing clothes. Local policy documents refer to these workers as “lazy-thinking” and praise the government for “creating an atmosphere where work is glorious and laziness is shameful,” according to German scholar Adrian Zenz’s recent study of Xinjiang.
Zenz and other researchers say these “labor transfers” can be a front for forced labor, especially in an environment where Muslim minorities are afraid of being arbitrarily detained. The government has also cracked down on minority language education as part of its campaign against ethnic minorities in the region. Dozens of former inmates told BuzzFeed News that they were forced to study Chinese in detention camps and regularly praise the ruling Communist Party.
One of the registered addresses of Xinjiang Jihua corresponds to the location of a large complex of internment facilities that can accommodate 11,700 people. This sprawling installation is just over 3.5 miles from central Hejing County in a remote area bounded by empty lots and an industrial area to the north and farmland to the south. Six factory buildings with blue roofs are located on their own site in the middle of the complex. They seem to be directly connected to adjoining detention buildings via a gate in the wall.
Xinjiang Jihua did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Another company, Hetian Yudu Handicrafts, is registered in a building in Lop County, southern Xinjiang. Satellite photos show it bears the tell-tale marks of an internment camp. In a state media article about job transfer programs in the region, a Uighur woman is quoted as weaving carpets there and promising to make a “surplus” for the company. Hetian Yudu did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The transfer of labor for Uyghurs, Kazakhs and the other minorities of Xinjiang extends beyond the region to other parts of China. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank that has published research documenting human rights abuses in Xinjiang, identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces in March using Uyghur and Kazakh workers from Xinjiang as part of a state labor transfer program. Refusing these assignments was “extremely difficult,” the institute stated, because they were “entangled in the apparatus of imprisonment and political indoctrination.”
In many cases, Chinese media articles in Chinese language show photos of migrant workers, who appear to be ethnic minorities, boarding buses or working on the assembly line. The articles say that they are participating in a poverty reduction program. But they are subject to strict controls and constant surveillance and are afraid of being sent to camps or otherwise punished if they do not comply. After work, according to former inmates and Chinese-language news articles about the programs, they must participate in “patriotic education”.
A white paper published by the Chinese government in September gives indications of the scope of the program, stating that the average “excess labor relocation” per year exceeded 2.76 million people.
According to state media reports, efforts to reduce poverty in Xinjiang span a wide range of industries, from textile mills and food processing to the slaughter of farm animals and cotton farming. It is unclear which part of the workers in these programs is forced to work, underpaid or otherwise ill-treated. However, experts say the number is large and growing.
“Research has shown that some of those transferred to work are unwilling and severely underpaid, creating concerns about forced labor, possibly significant,” noted the Washington, DC-based Think Tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. The US Department of Labor estimates that 100,000 Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are in slave labor.
The Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes ethical standards for cotton producers, told the BBC earlier this month that it has stopped auditing and certifying farms in Xinjiang in part because poverty reduction efforts are casting the shadow of forced labor on the entire industry there .
The abuse in Xinjiang can affect the supply chains of some of the world’s most famous brands. In its March report, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute also identified 82 multinational corporations with suppliers using Uyghur workers outside of Xinjiang as part of a labor transfer program, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Dell, Apple, Amazon, H&M, Nike, Nintendo and General Motors, and others.
According to the institute’s report, some brands said they would no longer work with these suppliers this year. Others said they had no contractual relationships with suppliers involved in work transfer programs, “but no brand has been able to exclude a link further down their supply chain,” the report said. Apple said in July that it found no evidence of forced labor on its production lines.
Nurdybai turned 28 this year. She is a busy woman with a toddler she falls in love with and a young clothing store she started in her new home in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Personally, she has a fresh face, with perfectly microscopic eyebrows and wispy green shadows on her eyelids.
Her ordeal began in 2017. At that time, she was running a tailoring shop and a second thriving business selling traditional Kazakh clothing in China, Kunikai Clothing. The company employed around 30 people and specialized in the elaborate embroidery of traditional Kazakh clothing. According to public records, it even offered training and advice on the complex designs. A photo this year shows her at a trade exhibition in the provincial capital Urumqi in an elegant black shift dress and large dark sunglasses. She was practically in her factory – another old photo shows her explaining to workers how to cut fabric, with the cuts marked with a chalked dotted line.
One night in October 2017, she returned from work so burned out that she immediately turned off her phone and fell into bed. She later found out that the police were looking for her that night and called several of her relatives to try to contact her. The next morning they called again and then came to her door.
She was taken to a camp not far from where she lived in Nilka County in northeast Xinjiang near the border with Kazakhstan. Located in the Kashgar River Valley, Nilka is small and remote, and handcraft is embedded in its history – one of the few landmarks to see is the ruin of an old copper mine.
The camp grew quickly. It seemed to Nurdybai that dozens of people came in every day, often wearing hoods so they couldn’t see. “You could hear the clink of their chains as they came in,” she said.
There was no heating and she was shivering all the time in her thin uniform. There were 16 women in her dormitory. Inside, she received a book with the speeches of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Instead of running her tailoring shop or doing clothing orders, she now spent three and a half hours each day studying Xi’s speeches. She couldn’t understand why. Soon enough her days would be filled with work.
BuzzFeed News; Source: Alison Killing
Has forced labor A long history in Xinjiang before the detention campaign. Some lower-security prisons were linked to farms, while many high-security prisons contained heavy-duty industrial facilities, such as a lead and zinc smelter, fertilizer plants, and coal and uranium mines. Some contained buildings for light manufacturing.
In the spring of 2017, factories appeared in the makeshift camps of the early detention campaign. Often they appeared as a single factory that was jammed wherever there was space, squeezed between the existing buildings or built on the sports field of a former school. At the same time, new and expanding high security facilities added factories, typically in larger numbers.
With the explosion of the factory building in 2018, new patterns emerged. The gradual addition of factory buildings on cramped existing sites continued. But detention centers on the outskirts of cities that had more space were expanded to accommodate new factories, usually neatly laid out in a neat grid and often separated from the main site – by a fence or even a road with barbed wire paths connecting the two. The factory site often had a separate entrance from the surrounding streets so that raw materials could be delivered and finished goods picked up without disturbing the larger warehouse.
While some of the new factories were built in higher security facilities, they are more commonly found in lower security compounds and appear to be dedicated to light industry – making clothes rather than smelting zinc or mining. Much of the construction work since 2017 has been concentrated in the south and west of Xinjiang: the regions with the highest number of Uyghurs and Kazakhs.
Hotan Prefecture, for example, has almost a third of the factories built between early 2017 and late 2020. Two counties – Hotan and Lop – built 1.9 million square feet and 1.8 million square feet of factories there during that period.
According to researchers and news reports, forced labor in Xinjiang increased in 2018. An ethnic Kazakh factory owner from northern Xinjiang, who asked for her name and company to be withheld for fear of retaliation, described the government’s relentless efforts to round up workers that year. BuzzFeed News was able to review details about their company’s registration. “I was an entrepreneur. I had a small textile factory, ”she said. “I had to go through a lot of red tape, but I made it.”
In 2018, police officers visited their factory five times and asked them to recommend that workers be “transformed” in order to achieve a quota. They told her to look for behavioral disorders – for example, with a ceramic bowl with Uighur script on the floor or repeatedly with a headscarf for women.
“We had heard that there had been mass arrests and that people were disappearing into these schools. We didn’t know much, but we knew it wasn’t a good place. ”
She managed to fob them off and offer bribes and excuses all five times.
The business owner had heard rumors that the detention centers were not intended for education, as the government claimed, but for mass detention. “We had heard that there had been mass arrests and that people were disappearing into these schools. We didn’t know much, but we knew it wasn’t a good place, ”she said. She was afraid of being sent to a camp herself, but she couldn’t bear to hand over the names of her workers either. “I’ve never sent a single person to the camp,” she said, and a hint of pride crept into her voice.
Government officials also told the entrepreneur about poverty reduction programs and said people could get jobs in other parts of the country, which ethnic Kazakhs sometimes refer to as “inner China”. A group of people from her village left for one of these programs, she said. They returned in six months and told her they had been paid much less than they originally promised, she said.
Until May 2018Nurdybai was transferred to another camp in Nilka County – one of several where she was held. That summer, the camp contained two residential buildings and several blue-roofed factories, with two more under construction, satellite images show. The first buildings on the site – two five-story residential buildings and eleven factories – were expected to be built in late 2015. When Nurdybai arrived, another 15 factories were added to cover the grass field at the north end of the property.
Much later, after moving to Kazakhstan, Nurdybai found the location of the camp itself on Google Earth. It looked strangely familiar. By then, however, it had grown even bigger.
Construction began on four more factories in October 2019, but workers didn’t finish building the steel frame until the first snow hit in the second week of November and had to stop work. They were completed in May of this year, and three more factories were added in the fall. There are now 33 factory buildings on the site. Together they cover 428,705 square feet, an area larger than seven soccer fields.
Nurdybai stayed in the camp for a few months before she was ordered to work in one of the factories in the camp. When officials discovered she had worked in the clothing industry in the past, she was told to teach other women how to sew clothes – school uniforms, she recalled. She taught them how to sew square pockets on top of tunics and how to sew a collar straight.
“It was a huge place. There were so many women in there. They were all like me – prisoners, ”she said.
She said she was paid 9 yuan – about $ 1.38 – for one month, far less than the prevailing wages outside the walls of the detention center.
It was a short walk to work – the distance from the apartment buildings to the nearest factory was only 25 meters, while the furthest one on the opposite side of the property was only five minutes away. The women would work from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., she said, and again from 1:30 p.m. after lunch. until 6:30 pm After the nine-hour day, they had to take classes, memorize and review the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda, and study Mandarin Chinese in the building where they lived.
Nurdybai remembered that the factory had new sewing machines. In fact, all of the equipment inside looked new. But there was evidence that those who worked there did not do so voluntarily. Scissors were chained to each work table to prevent the women from taking them to the dormitories, where they could theoretically use them to injure themselves or stab the camp guards. And there were cameras everywhere, Nurdybai said, even in the bathrooms.
Nurdybai said the floor within the factory building was divided in a grid style. It wasn’t like the factories she’d seen when running her own business. “There were booths about chin height so you couldn’t see or speak to others. Everyone had a door that was locked,” she said from the outside. Each booth had between 25 and 30 people, she said.
One of the employees of the camp justified the locked cubicles with the words: “These people are criminals, they can cause you serious harm.” The police patrolled the factory floor.
Nurdybai ate with the other workers and slept in the same quarters as them. But her position as a trainer gave her a special privilege: she had a key fob that she could use to open the doors to the bathroom. Others had to ask permission to go.
Towards the end of Nurdybai’s time In internment camps in September 2018, police officers finally told her what she had allegedly done wrong: She had downloaded an illegal app called WhatsApp. She was later released and said her “education” was finished. Her boyfriend at the time brought her a bouquet of flowers as if she had just come home from a long trip.
But her life had collapsed during the time she was in the camps. She owed a bank business loans of 70,000 yuan, or about $ 10,700, for which she was unable to make payments while in custody.
Her clothing orders had also remained unfulfilled. “They took everything out of my factory – expensive materials – they took it,” she said. “My customers, I had to pay them back.” She started selling her possessions and even her car to try to repay the loan.
“I’ve learned to value my freedom.”
Eventually she saved enough money to leave China and immigrate to Kazakhstan. She’s still paying back her loans in China, despite managing to negotiate them with the bank. Most of the time, she tries to get things done one day at a time. “I’ve learned to value my freedom,” she said. “Before all of that, I was successful. I had money But now I understand that money is nothing without freedom. “
She started a small clothing store again. She had a child. And she started talking about what had happened to her, telling the story of how she lost everything she had worked for.
She went to the offices of Atajurt, a small human rights NGO in a run-down building in central Almaty. There weren’t a lot of resources – on a visit earlier this year, a conference room door was broken and had to be closed with a strip of red ribbon. But it had quickly become a hub for ex-inmates from Xinjiang’s camps, who often came to record their stories for YouTube and speak to journalists and university professors who visited the city.
Nurdybai’s workshop is located in a small two-story building in a residential area on the outskirts of Almaty, lined with houses and a neighborhood school. Inside there is only one window with a narrow staircase, the railing of which is painted white. Her workshop on the first floor was littered with scraps of purple and red cloth, and two sewing machines sat on tables.
She was a healthy woman before she was interned. But after she was imprisoned, she developed a hernia that still caused sharp pain in her stomach – she suspected that she was forced to sit for hours while studying Chinese. Worse, she got migraines that started with a burning pain that went up the back of her neck. She wondered if the freezing showers she had been forced to were to blame.
“I worked hard for 10 years to be successful,” she said. “I’ve lost everything, including my health.” ●
Ekaterina Anchevskaya contributed to the coverage.