China’s largest recent Covid-19 outbreak 'emerged in Xinjiang factory linked to forced labour'

Verity Bowman
·2-min read
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng, Xinjiang - REUTERS
Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng, Xinjiang - REUTERS

The biggest coronavirus outbreak witnessed by China in months has been linked to a factory in Xinjiang believed to be run by Uighur people recruited through forced labour. 

At least 190 cases of the coronavirus were recorded in the western region of Kashgar, with reports claiming the cases originated in a factory under a state-led “poverty alleviation” effort. 

The outbreak represents the country’s largest cluster of cases since June, when 180 infections were reported in Beijing. 

State media reported that the outbreak began when a 17-year-old girl tested positive on Saturday after visiting her parents.

She was tested "during the county's routine nucleic acid testing, a measure introduced in August in Xinjiang to improve Covid-19 alert timeliness,” State news agency Xinhua said. 

They added that the region’s entire 4.74 million population was tested within three days of the case being identified.

Out of those infected, three are in a critical condition, while 138 are asymptomatic. 

The factory, Shuchang Garment, was immediately cordoned off. It employs around 300 people who earn around £10 per day.

International experts have described such factories as “coercive” and claim they often include forced labour. China denies the accusations. 

Under the industry-based poverty alleviation scheme, Uighurs are tracked and allegedly given little choice other than to accept work placements. 

Officials have voiced concerns about the virus hitting the large internment camps of Xinjiang since the virus first emerged in China at the end of 2019. They worry coronavirus could spread quickly among Uighurs due to their close living arrangements. 

In August, the state was quickly placed into a tight lockdown after an outbreak in the capital Urumqi. But this time Chinese authorities do not appear to be locking down Xinjiang or dissuading travel. 

“For residents in other parts of Xinjiang, life and work go on generally as usual with necessary epidemic control measures in place,” said Xinhua.