China Resurrects Mao-Era Forced Labor for Ethnic Minorities - OZY | A Modern Media Company

China Resurrects Mao-Era Forced Labor for Ethnic Minorities

China Resurrects Mao-Era Forced Labor for Ethnic Minorities

By Emily Feng



Beijing is bringing back gulag-style re-education and forced labor to target Muslims.  

By Emily Feng

When Abel Amantay, an ethnically Kazakh citizen of China, returned to the western Chinese region of Xinjiang last year to register his Kazakhstan green card, he was detained and sent to Jinghe county’s “re-education center” in Bortala prefecture.

After finally obtaining permission this month to visit the Xinjiang facility, Amantay’s father saw his son and learned that he was employed in the center’s textile factory earning 650 yuan ($95) a month. Amantay is now allowed to make brief, twice-monthly supervised calls to his wife in Kazakhstan.

“He does not say much and just said he is learning a lot. But every time he calls, he asks for the children’s names, ages, which grade they are in,” says Aiytkali Ganiguli, Amantay’s wife and a Kazakh citizen. “He sounds like he has severe memory loss.”

The similarities between what is happening to Uighurs and … the Maoist period are striking.

Darren Byler, anthropologist, University of Washington

Before its abolition in 2013, China’s gulag-style laogai system of re-education through work forced millions deemed to be political dissidents to perform hard labor. The emergence of a forced labor system within Xinjiang’s internment camps this year suggests Beijing is resurrecting elements of laogai, with Amantay becoming one of its latest victims.

“The similarities between what is happening to Uighurs and what happened to people with unwanted political backgrounds in the Maoist period are striking … except [this time] only members of particular minority ethnic groups are targeted for this extralegal form of forced labor,” says Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who specializes in Xinjiang.

In early 2017, Chinese authorities began using extralegal detention against Uighur Muslims and other minorities, including Kazakhs, in internment camps. The United Nations estimates at least 1 million people are being held in such facilities, and China has been condemned internationally.


Beijing has recast the internment camps as “vocational education centers” intended to eradicate supposed extremist tendencies in detainees by teaching them Communist doctrine and the Mandarin language. Chinese authorities have taken that further by constructing forced labor facilities within internment camps as Xinjiang expands the scope of its mass detention system.

In interviews with the families of six Uighur and Kazakh detainees, relatives say detainees have been employed at textile factories with little to no pay after “graduating” from the region’s detention centers. They are not allowed to leave the factories and communication with relatives, if permitted, is heavily monitored.

“He kept saying, ‘There are things I cannot say more about because there is a police person behind me,’” says Sara Zhienbai, a Kazakh citizen who lost contact with her husband, Dakey Juniskhan, after he was detained on New Year’s Day 2017 in Xinjiang’s Ili prefecture. He was allowed a two-minute phone call in October to tell relatives he had been transferred from an internment center to a factory.

Two of Xinjiang’s largest internment camps — the Kashgar city and Yutian County vocational training centers — have opened forced labor facilities this year. Yutian’s detention center boasts eight factories specializing in vocations such as shoemaking, mobile phone assembly and tea packaging, offering a base monthly salary of 1,500 yuan ($220), according to Chinese state media reports.

Satellite images show that Kashgar’s internment center has more than doubled in size since 2016 and Yutian’s grew 269 percent over the same period, according to a report compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank. State media say that such labor is voluntary and jobs are selected by students after they “pass language standards and learn the law.”

“A life distorted by religious extremism needs to be saved. A soul poisoned by religious extremism needs to be awakened,” according to a November report in the party-run Xinjiang Daily. “After vocational skills education and training, the students clearly identified right from wrong, changed their minds and broke with their dark past, ushering in a new life.”

Xinjiang authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

“This is not voluntary work,” says Omirbek Nurmukamet, whose Chinese-born wife, Zhainbar Daulet, was detained last July in Xinjiang’s Hutubi County in Changji prefecture. Daulet has been performing forced labor in Hutubi since September, according to her husband. “She works in a textile factory and, in her spare time, she learns Mandarin and party propaganda. The hours are long,” he says.

People assigned to the factories appear to be subject to a less stringent regime than those in the main internment camps, as they are allowed to receive monitored monthly visits and short calls from family members.

“His ‘teacher’ in the camp said that he had studied political teaching very well and his Chinese was very good, which was why he was able to ‘graduate’ to garment factory work,” according to one detainee’s brother, who declined to provide his name as he and his family live in China. The detainee, a Uighur dentist, was taught to operate a sewing machine and “sentenced” to three years’ labor in November, according to his family.

But others say they have been cut off from their detained loved ones, while calls to officials and relatives within China go unanswered.

Razila Nurala, a 25-year-old Chinese vocational graduate who moved with her family to Kazakhstan in 2016, was detained in August in Xinjiang’s Chitai County internment center after returning to work at a marketing agency. In November, she was put to work in a textile factory. “It is unnecessary to send my daughter to re-education because she is very highly educated and has valuable work experience,” says Kaliasgar Nurbak, her mother, now a naturalized Kazakh citizen.

In November, Nurala’s aunt was able to visit her in Chitai County. Nurala told her she was not being paid a wage and had hurt her hand operating the factory machines but appeared too nervous to say more. “No one can contact her, and she is not allowed to go home,” says Nurbak. “She is all alone.”

By Emily Feng

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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