Large Covid outbreak in China linked to Xinjiang forced labour

Guardian staff
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

China’s largest coronavirus outbreak in months appears to have emerged in a factory in Xinjiang linked to forced labour and the government’s controversial policies towards Uighur residents.

More than 180 cases of Covid-19 documented in the past week in Shufu county, in southern Xinjiang, can be traced back to a factory that was built in 2018 as part of government “poverty alleviation” efforts, a campaign that researchers and rights advocates describe as coercive.

Under the initiative, Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region are tracked and given work placements that they have little choice but to take up.

An official in nearby Kashgar told Caixin that the plant, Shuchang Garment, was a “satellite factory” for producing clothing, curtains and bedding. Previous state media reports about the factory said it employed about 300 villagers, mostly women, who could earn as much as 90 yuan (about £10) a day.

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“This is a village factory that is part of the scheme to put all adult Uighurs and related minorities into low-skilled factory work as part of poverty alleviation,” said Adrian Zenz, a researcher focused on Xinjiang who has analysed public documents and official language related to the programme.

“Clearly, ‘industry-based poverty alleviation’ is not voluntary but mandatory. Those who resist being ‘alleviated’ from their poverty are subjected to ideological education so that their thinking aligns with the state’s goals,” he said.

The outbreak in Shufu county is among the largest China has recorded in more than two months. On Wednesday officials said the flare-up had been contained and the factory sealed off. By Monday night 4.5 million people in the area had been tested.

Authorities said there were 183 residents from the county now with the virus, three of whom were in critical condition while 138 patients were asymptomatic.

Officials said the first case was a 17-year-old girl who worked at another local factory and who had eaten dinner with her parents at Shuchang. She was described as being from one of the nearby villages but lived in the factory dormitory and returned home every two weeks.

Since the pandemic began in China late last year, rights advocates have worried about the possibility of the virus reaching crowded internment and re-education camps and prisons in Xinjiang. An outbreak in Urumqi, the capital, in August, prompted officials to swiftly enter a state of “wartime” lockdown. Tight controls on information coming out of the region have added to uncertainty as to the extent of the virus’s reach there.

China’s policies in Xinjiang in the name of counter-terrorism have come under increased international criticism as witness accounts, satellite imagery, leaked official documents and other evidence have detailed mass detentions, surveillance and intimidation of Muslim minorities, most notably Uighur residents.

Previous reports have documented the use of ex-detainees in factories, and the Shuchang factory is located about four miles from an active detention facility, according to a database compiled by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) using satellite imagery and other sources.

Researchers say that while it is possible ex-detainees are working in the factory, there is no evidence to suggest so. “The conditions likely amount to coerced labour, as the workers seem to live within a few hundred metres of their factory and yet are only allowed to go home once a fortnight,” said Nathan Ruser, a researcher with ASPI.