Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are sending hundreds of ethnic Uyghurs to other parts of China to work in factories affected by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), drawing criticism from observers who say the move shows “Uyghur lives don’t matter” in the country.
COVID-19 has brought production in China to a grinding halt as authorities enact nationwide quarantines and travel restrictions to slow the spread of the virus that, as of Thursday, had infected nearly 78,500 people and left more than 2,700 dead in the country.
But while measures taken by Beijing to combat the virus grow ever stricter, official media reports in recent days suggest that the government in the XUAR has been forcing Uyghurs to relocate to factories in the provinces of Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang, in what may be part of a bid to shore up output, despite the risks associated with potential infection.
Recent reports by the official Xinjiang Daily and Chinanews.com said that from Feb. 22-23, “400 youths were transferred to the provinces of Hunan, Zhejiang, and Jiangxi.”
Of those, 114 from Awat (in Chinese, Awati) county, in the XUAR’s Aksu (Akesu) prefecture, were sent to Jiangxi’s Jiujiang city on Feb. 23, 100 from Aksu city were sent to Jiujiang on Feb. 22, and 171 from Hotan (Hetian) prefecture were sent to Changsha city in Hunan province, the reports said, without providing a date for the last transfer.
Additionally, Chinanews.com reported that on Feb. 26 at 11:00 a.m., 135 workers flew from Aksu Airport to Jiangsu’s Wuyi city to take part in “summer work,” without providing details.
Another report from the official Tianshan.net website said that at noon on Thursday, 242 workers from the seat of Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, as well as Kashgar’s Poskam (Zepu), Kargilik (Yecheng), and Yengisar (Yingjisha) counties, flew from Kashgar Airport to Changsha on a China Southern Airlines B787 aircraft.
According to the report, most of the workers were born after 1990 and were sent to Changsha to work for the Lansi Technology Co.
In a separate report, Tianshan.net said that on Feb. 25, authorities in Hotan forced more than 30,000 workers to return to their jobs at 299 enterprises in the area, despite an ongoing quarantine.
Uyghur lives at stake
Speaking to RFA’s Uyghur Service on Thursday, Dolkun Isa, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), said he found it “shocking” that Xinjiang’s government is forcing hundreds of Uyghur workers to travel to other parts of China to work in factories “at a time when [Beijing has] quarantined millions of people and companies have suspended production out of fear of coronavirus infection.”
“It is clear that the Chinese government is placing these Uyghurs in harm’s way because Uyghur lives don’t matter to China,” he said.
“There is no guarantee that these Uyghurs will come home alive. China must stop forcing Uyghurs to go to the Mainland and work as cheap labor under the threat of the coronavirus.”
Memet Imin, a Uyghur medical researcher based in New York, said that Uyghurs represent an ideal workforce for companies in other parts of China that are struggling to meet their targets amid the outbreak.
“China is sending Uyghurs because they have no means to oppose the authorities, they can be forced to work as cheap labor, and the companies that employ them won’t be held accountable, even if they get sick or die due to the coronavirus,” he said.
“Because the situation Uyghurs face is highly precarious, it would be rather easy for the Chinese government to explain away the death [of one of these workers] to their parents.”
Region under threat
Recent reporting by RFA has found that many residents of the XUAR have been left without adequate food and supplies amid quarantines enforced by local officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the region, which as of Thursday has seen 76 infections that have led to two deaths.
In certain areas of the XUAR, such as the city of Atush (in Chinese, Atushi) in Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, residents found to have left their homes without permission during quarantine face the threat of 15 days detention in the region’s network of internment camps, where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been held since April 2017.
Reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities that experts warned recently could lead to an epidemic.
A lack of transparency on the part of officials has been blamed for allowing the coronavirus to gain a solid foothold in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, leading authorities to shut down the city in January.