Chinese authorities have been accused of forcing Muslim Uyghurs to work in factories as the coronavirus pandemic spread in the country. One religious freedom expert told CNA that the Communist government could be trafficking in slave labor.
During the early months of 2020—as the number of new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases ballooned in China—there was “a huge increase in the amount of Uyghurs who have been assigned, or ‘graduated’ from these camps and assigned to work in factories,” Nadine Maenza, Vice Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told CNA.
“So there does seem to be, this year, in January, this surge in the amount of Uyghurs that have been transferred from the camps over to the factories,” she said.
As many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Muslim minorities are estimated to have been detained in camps by Chinese authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Victims of the camps or their family members have reported political indoctrination, starvation, torture, beatings, and even forced sterilizations in the camps.
A recent report from the Congressional-Executive Commission on China detailed how detainees are moved from the camps into nearby factories and in the agriculture industry, with goods made with their labor ending up in the supply chains of some major U.S. companies.
“If these reports are accurate, it means that the Chinese government is trafficking in the slave labor of religious minorities,” Maenza said.
Maenza said that the movement of Uyghurs into factories increased along with the spread of the novel coronavirus. China has reported only 76 cases of COVID-19 in Xinjiang, with three deaths—an implausible claim, she said.
“Now with a million Uyghurs in these concentration camps, we find those numbers to be very hard to believe,” Maenza said.
Chinese authorities closed off travel into and out of the city of Wuhan, the source of the COVID-19 epidemic, on January 23, according to the New York Times.
The next day, parts of Xinjiang were put on a lockdown after at least two COVID-19 cases were discovered in the region’s capital city. According to a Feb. 26 briefing of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, the lockdown was announced suddenly, and residents were reportedly caught without the proper time to obtain essential food and supplies.
As parts of Xinjiang were reportedly in lockdown, Uyghurs were being sent to work in factories elsewhere in China to compensate for lost productivity due to the virus, Radio Free Asia reported. And the threat of the virus could pose a “humanitarian disaster” to the camps in Xinjiang, USCIRF warned.
Factories and schools are reportedly open again in the region. The New York Times reported on March 30 that, according to Chinese authorities, garment factories, farms, and oil fields were operational.
Radio Free Asia reported on March 31 that schools in Xinjiang had reopened despite concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus.
As countries around the world, including China, respond to the new coronavirus, USCIRF has been monitoring for abuses of religious freedom as churches, mosques, synagogues, and houses of worship close for public safety reasons. A USCIRF fact-sheet on religious freedom during the coronavirus details the ongoing risks to religious minorities around the world.
There are reasonable limits to religious freedom in cases of public emergency, Maenza said, acknowledging that churches may need to close to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but any limits must be enforced in a non-discriminatory manner and only for a limited duration of time.
“One of our biggest concerns has been that some of these regulations that countries are implementing are going to last beyond the pandemic,” she said. “What we’ll be watching,” she added, “is to make sure that that’s not the case.”