WASHINGTON—Several girls and young women belonging to the Muslim Uyghur minority in northwest China are stranded in a coastal Chinese province after “training” programs offered by local officials became effective slave labor, parents and officials say.
“Two officials from the village came and told us that they would be responsible. They told us that they made a deal with a factory there to train our daughters for one year. They also told us that they would get paid,” Uyghur farmer Tohti, a resident of No. 8 hamlet near Kachung village said.
“But after they took them there, they didn’t pay. Now, the girls are calling, asking their parents to bring them back home. They cannot come back on their own, so they have been calling their parents. The parents are sending what they have to their children, so they can pay for their travel expenses. Many parents are facing huge difficulties and suffering a lot,” Tohti said.
Parents were reluctant
Reports published on Web sites in the Uyghur region said 213 girls had been co-opted into a work training program by Chinese officials in Yarkand county, near Kashgar, in March.
While their parents—many of whom live in extreme poverty—were reluctant to send them, officials said they would take responsibility for their daughters’ progress. The location of the factory in which the girls were to work wasn’t made clear.
The girls were promised 500 yuan a month at the beginning and during training, the reports said. In later stages, they were promised between 900 and 1,100 yuan monthly, and they were told they would be paid on time.
The government and Party took our daughters, so we are expecting that they will do something to bring them back,
But the girls went unpaid until June 28, when at least two of them fled into hiding in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Taken to a different province
Patigul Yunus, one of the girls from No. 8 hamlet who escaped, was quoted as saying: “When we asked them about our salary, they told us: ‘We have already given it to the man who handed you to us. You will not get paid.’”
The girls’ parents were told that their daughters—who included junior high-school student Kurbanisa Nurmemet and 15-year-old Risalet Turdimemet—would be taken to the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang. Instead, the girls ended up in northern Shandong, a local village official said.
The head of No. 8 hamlet, Tursun Barat, said the parents of the girls, some of whom were as young as 15, opposed the plan.
“I took the farmers to the village—to the village chief. I told him that their parents don’t want them to go. We should not force them,” he said.
“The chief didn’t listen. Instead, he tried to convince them and screamed at me: ‘Why did you bring the farmers? Why didn’t you bring the girls themselves?’ And he also dismissed the chief of the second division from his post because he didn’t bring people,” he said, adding that the girls themselves were actually willing to go.
“Don’t believe what the girls say,” he said. “You must also listen to what we say.”
Tursun Barat said he tried and failed during a visit to Urumqi to meet with Patigul Yunus, who had escaped. He later spoke with the county chief instead.
“The [county] chief said that it was a mistake and to correct the mistake...He said, ‘The government did not force the people, and it has stressed that it was voluntary, but you made a mistake in Kachung. From now on you have to be careful.’”
Asked about reports that some of the girls had been raped, Tursun Barat said: “The government has forced them to go, so the government should respond to this. We have told the chief of the village.”
“It’s true that, at the beginning, we forced them. We borrowed 5,000 yuan for travel expenses for nine girls [from this village], and the girls were supposed to pay that money back. But we don’t know what kind of work they did there.”
“We wanted to give them money if they didn’t have money and bring them back,” he said of his trip to Urumqi.
He denied reports that the girls would be punished if they returned home. But he also revealed that the Kachung authorities were already retaliating against the families of the escaped girls.
“I haven’t heard that if they come here, they will be punished,” he said. “But I have heard that the parents of the girls who came back here have been subjected to forced labor [in Uyghur, hasha ].”
The leader of hamlet No. 8 said in an interview that this information had originated with government irrigation officials.
Meanwhile, distraught father Tohti called on local officials to bring his daughter home. “The government and party took our daughters, so we are expecting that they will do something to bring them back. The officials who took our children haven’t come back yet either. Two female officials took those girls with them.”
“We are very concerned about our children, because we don’t know where they are. We would like to bring them back. But we are afraid because two girls who have returned have been fined, and the officials are forcing their parents to send them back to the same place. They say that this is a Party order.”
Forced labor still common
Hasha , or forced, unpaid labor, is still used frequently by Chinese authorities in Yarkand, which with its 29 villages is the largest county in Kashgar. It economy is based on agriculture and horticulture, and it has a population of more than 670,000.
A hasha recruitment drive to expand an almond plantation was reported by RFA’s Uyghur service in March.
In a series of interviews with RFA in 2004, Chinese government officials in Xinjiang confirmed that hasha still exists, although the system has long since been eliminated in other parts of China.
Uyghurs, who number more than 16 million, constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949.
Original reporting in Uyghur by Erkin. RFA Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han and Enver Kadir.