Some businesses in the northwestern region of Xinjiang are using forced labor at exploitative rates in connection with the mass incarceration of ethnic minority Muslims in camps, RFA has learned.
Beginning in April 2017, Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been jailed or detained in "re-education" camps throughout the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Estimates suggest that some 1.1 million people are currently being held in the network—equating to 10 to 11 percent of the adult Muslim population of the region.
While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, official media are now claiming that the camps are an effective tool to protect the country from "terrorism" and provide "vocational training" for Uyghurs.
The mass detentions have drawn significant attention from the international community, and particularly from the U.S., where lawmakers have called for access to the camps and proposed sanctions against officials and entities in China deemed responsible for abusing the rights of inmates.
In the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in northern Xinjiang, bordering Kazakhstan, nine Kazakh women from Yining county were recently sent back to a "re-education" camp after they refused to sign a labor contract with a monthly salary of 600 yuan, around 40 percent of a typical wage for a manual worker, of which they would have received only around 300 yuan, Kazakh Muslims with ties to the region told RFA.
The women were sent to work in the Yining County Textile Industrial Park after being released from an internment camp, and expected to work 12 hour shifts and undergo an hour's "political education" every day for the money, sources said.
When they refused to go along with the terms of the contract, they were sent back to the camp, they said.
Friends and relatives later wrote to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) about the case.
One source said the majority of the textile park's 2,000 employees are former camp inmates who work 12 hours a day, with one hour's "political study" after finishing their shifts at 7.00 p.m.
Muslim Gulzira Khan and her daughter Kundiz Tursinjan were sent to a "re-education" camp on July 15, 2017, and released on Oct. 7, 2018, and told to report to the textile park for work 10 days after their release, sources said.
They were told to sign an employment contract last Friday and threatened with being sent back to the camp.
However, calls to Gulzira's phone were disconnected on Friday and Monday. Calls to several businesses in the Yining Textile Industrial Park rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
A recent Ili TV news report depicted the growth of the local textile industry as beneficial to local ethnic minorities, and to the region's economy.
It said the Ili Zhuowan Apparel Co. was set up to make leather and other gloves in 2017, with the orders coming from overseas buyers and from the domestic e-commerce sector.
Textile and garment factories are currently being helped by "preferential policies" in the region, "solving the problem of surplus labor," the report said.
Muhtal, an ethnic Kazakh born in China but now living in Kazakhstan, said three of his family members have been sent to camps with no explanation or criminal charges since April 2017.
"My mother Aytulla was detained on April 25, 2017 in a political education camp in Xinjiang, while my father Murat was detained on March 19, 2018," Muhtal said. "And my cousin Mustafa Khan was arrested in Qitai County, Changji, on Oct. 17, 2017. I recently heard that he was doing so-called factory work there."
Another Muslim, Nurbek Hajbey, said his brother Umulbek was detained in the Emin county political re-education camp for more than nine months before his release on Nov. 25. He is now being prevented from going overseas.
"Umulbek is under surveillance by the police during the day ... and they say he can't leave the country because the bank gave him a loan," he said.
Ethnic minority Muslims in Xinjiang wanting to apply for a passport must gain approval from their village or neighborhood committee, the township government, their local police station and police department, and their employer, which is required to issue a document vouching that they have no relatives overseas.
The process can drag on for months. And even passport-holders must now find a government employee to act as guarantor in their absence, and any overseas trips are limited to 15 days, sources said.
An anonymous source in Xinjiang's Altay prefecture said the policy is now in operation across the region.
"Now the time limit for overseas trips has shrunk to 15 days," the source said. "It used to be three months."
"Another thing is that you have to have one or two guarantors who must be a government employee," the source said. "If you don't return to China before the end of 15 days, your guarantor will be sent to a political re-education camp."
The friends and family of overseas Chinese Muslim minorities are also sent to camps if their relative speaks out about the situation in Xinjiang while outside China, sources said.
A second source said guarantees for overseas travel have also been sought in the form of cars and apartments, which are held as surety for the person's overseas trip.
"After returning to China, they will undergo 20 days of uninterrupted questioning about who they met with in Kazakhstan, what was said, whether any state secrets were revealed," the source said. "They repeat the same questions many times, and if you give a different answer from the last time, you will be sent to a re-education camp."
Anyone traveling to Kazakhstan is also warned that Chinese security personnel will be watching them at all times wherever they are, according to another source, who also confirmed the claims made by the other sources about overseas travel.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.