Uyghur Women and Children Endure Heavy Labor Amid Detentions in Xinjiang’s Hotan

They take on tough farm work to make up for wages lost by men held in re-education camps.

Hotan prefecture in northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Ethnic Uyghur Women and children from Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, are being forced to endure heavy labor to make up for wages lost by the men in their families who are detained in re-education camps, according to sources.

Since April, thousands of Muslim Uyghurs accused of harboring “extremist” and “politically incorrect” views have been detained in a vast network of re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where Uyghurs complain of pervasive ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.

Sources believe there are virtually no majority ethnic Han Chinese held in the Xinjiang camps, and that the number of detainees in the region’s south—where the highest concentration of Uyghurs are based—far surpasses that in the north.

An officer from the Manglay police station, in Hotan’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county, recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the local government had sent hundreds of women and children from his township to neighboring Aksu (Akesu) prefecture to join heavy labor details to make up for wages lost after the men in their families were detained.

“Many families with two or three young children, having lost male laborers to re-education camps in the last six months, are facing financial difficulties at home,” said the officer, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity.

“To resolve this problem, the township government organized women and children to go to Aksu prefecture to pick cotton [and take on other heavy labor jobs].”

According to the officer, 280 people had been sent from his township alone to join the work details, which are organized by Qaraqash county officials into groups with “overseers” who manage their labor.

“The committee has carefully made arrangements by appointing supervisors, and assigned every 10 people to a working group with minders,” he said.

The women and children pick cotton and perform other duties “for their own family’s benefit,” rather than as part of a “re-education through labor” program, the officer said.

But while “fundamentally, they have not” been involved in any “misconduct” themselves, “some could be” placed into re-education camps if they did not go to Aksu to join the heavy labor details, he added, without providing details.

Other sources in Qaraqash—where officials last week said they had been ordered to send 40 percent of area residents to re-education camps—told RFA that women were being forced to shoulder the more difficult agricultural duties in the county because so many local men had been detained.

A manager of female laborers in Purchaqchi township, who also asked to remain unnamed, said pregnant women and the elderly were taking on extremely physical work in order to run area farms.

“In the past, when we had men working, we didn’t have to take on so much, but this year, we women are exhausted with the heavy labor we have to endure,” she said.

“We had to transport manure by motorcycle to the fields. If the men were here, they would have transported it by handcart and truck … We also had to pick the corn before cutting down the stalks and clearing the fields, when we previously only picked the corn and the men did the rest of the work.”

According to the manager, “you mainly find women in the fields” in Purchaqchi since April, when authorities launched a campaign to “re-educate” and jail Uyghurs under policies introduced by hardline Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary Chen Quanguo.

The most recent of the women to join in the heavy agricultural work had been at it for at least two months, she said, suggesting that most of the township’s men had been detained by mid-August.

“In some families, there are pregnant women left on their own who must carry out the men’s tasks, as they have no other option,” she added.

Camp network

Last month, sources told RFA that re-education camps in Ghulja (Yining) county, in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, and Korla (Kuerle) city, in neighboring Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, hold at least 3,600 inmates deemed “politically incorrect” by local authorities.

The camps are labeled “career development centers” in a bid to mask their true nature, they said, but the detainees held there are rarely freed, despite undergoing months of “training.”

Officials told RFA last week that authorities in Korla are also detaining Uyghurs in re-education camps for traveling overseas where they are “influenced by extremism and other things,” and refusing to free them until they admit it was “wrong” to have left the country.

New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch has called on the Chinese government to free the thousands of Uyghurs placed in the camps since April and close them down.

The camps—where inmates who have not broken any laws are detained extrajudicially, indefinitely and without the knowledge of their families—run contrary to China’s constitution and violate international human rights law, Human Rights Watch noted.

China regularly conducts “strike hard” campaigns in Xinjiang, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including videos and other material.

While China blames some Uyghurs for "terrorist" attacks, experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from the Uyghurs and that repressive domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence there that has left hundreds dead since 2009.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.