KASHGAR, China – The order of Chinese officials was blunt and urgent. Villagers of Muslim minorities should be pushed to jobs, wanting or not. Quotas would be established and families would be penalized if they refused to accept.
"Make people who are difficult to employ give up their selfish ideas," the labor office of Qapqal, a county in the western region of Xinjiang, said last year.
Villagers should receive military-style training to make them obedient workers, loyal to employers and the ruling Communist Party, the office said. "Change your entrenched, lazy, lax, slow, careless, carefree and individualistic customs so that they obey the company rules and work discipline," says the board.
The party is carrying out an ambitious campaign to reshape Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, in an army of factory workers and other large employers. Under the region's labor programs, poor farmers, small merchants and idle-aged villagers attend training and indoctrination courses for weeks or months, and then are assigned to sew clothes, make shoes, sweep streets or occupy other jobs.
Programs are an expanding front in an offensive ordered by the leader of China, Xi Jinping, to strengthen control over this region where these minorities constitute approximately half of the population. They are crucial to a social reengineering strategy along with the indoctrination camps, which have housed one million or more Uyghurs and Kazakhs.
For the government, many Uighur and Kazakh villagers are "rural surplus labor," an underemployed population that threatens social stability. Putting them in constant and supervised work, says the government, will eliminate poverty, which officials have said fueled religious extremism and ethnic violence in past years.
The government describes workers as volunteers. But official documents, interviews with experts and visits from The New York Times to Xinjiang indicate that local plans uproot villagers, restrict their movements and pressure them to stay at work. Experts say such hard methods can amount to forced labor, potentially contaminating the global supply chain used by Xinjiang workers, particularly for cotton products. Japanese retailers Muji and Uniqlo say they have used cotton from the region, while Walmart has bought products from a company that until recently used Xinjiang workers.
Given the strict control over Xinjiang, "we have to assume for the moment that there is a very significant risk of coercion," said Amy K. Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-author. of a study on Xinjiang labor programs.
Forced labor could arise "even if coercion was implicit or if the programs offered workers decent income," he added.
The labor programs operate in parallel with the indoctrination camps in Xinjiang, which have been condemned by Western governments. Inmates also receive job training, and officials say many will be sent to work in factories.
Taken together, the policies are designed to make Muslim minorities in the region more secular and urbanized like most Han in China. Many Chinese see that as commendable. Uyghur critics see it as an ethnic subjugation.
"What they are trying to do is assimilate the Uyghurs," said Mustafa Aksu, program coordinator at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.
"Foster a sense of discipline,quot;
The factory run by the Jinfujie Clothing Company on the sandy edge of Kashgar, a city in southern Xinjiang, has been a star in the government's labor campaign.
Jinfujie, who calls himself Golden Future in English, trained and employed 2,300 village workers. He also opened a branch in an indoctrination camp, where he would put more than 500 inmates to work, A company executive told officials last year.
The executive, Sun Yijie, a former soldier, said the company drove a tight boat to turn the villagers into workers. "Starting with military exercises before they begin their work, we foster a sense of discipline," he said.
Video images posted online show Jinfujie workers in gray and orange uniforms lined up For a mood rally. "A successful future," they shouted in unison.
The company has said it won an order from Germany to manufacture hundreds of thousands of ski pants. Jinfujie did not answer questions about the claimed order. During a recent visit, the guards prohibited Times reporters from visiting the Jinfujie factory or the surrounding industrial zone.
Dozens of manufacturing areas have emerged in Xinjiang, demonstrating the government's ambitions to rebuild the region. Mr. Xi, China's leader, promised to end poverty throughout the country at the end of 2020, and Xinjiang officials face intense pressure to create jobs.
"The offensive to eradicate poverty has reached the crucial stage in a decisive battle," said Chen Quanguo, secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, earlier this month on a tour of southern Xinjiang. "Transmit the pressure down, level by level."
Labor programs depend on attracting companies from the richest east coast in China, where fewer young people want to work in production lines. Xinjiang has offered manufacturers cheap labor, as well as generous tax exemptions and subsidies.
"They are still not as fast as workers from other parts of China," said He Tan, a businessman who owns a small factory on the outskirts of Hotan, a city in Xinjiang.
Government objectives are radical. One The plan issued in 2018 required putting 100,000 people from the poorest parts of southern Xinjiang, a heavily Uighur area, to work by the end of 2020. The government recently said that goal was met one year earlier than planned. At the end of 2023, according to another plan, Xinjiang wants a million to work in its textile and clothing industries, compared to 100,000 in 2017.
In Mr. He's factory, dozens of Uighur women from nearby villages sat speechless in rows sewing school uniforms. Guzalnur Mamatjan, a 20-year-old Uighur, said she earned about $ 200 per month.
"I would like to work here for two or three years and then open my own clothing store," he said in a brief interview in the presence of officials.
Standing out against the desert dunes, the new industrial areas in Xinjiang are often surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and security cameras. Some are built near indoctrination fields and employ former inmates
Xinjiang's drive to put minorities into jobs often feels less like a job fair and more like a military call.
Trainee workers usually attend political courses similar to those used in indoctrination fields first. They practice military exercises, learn patriotic Chinese songs and listen to conferences that warn against Islamic zeal and preach gratitude to the Communist Party. New workers are sometimes shown in Chinese media reports with military-type uniforms and attentive while being escorted to their employers.
Many are separated from their families. A government directive of Qapqal he ordered that the children of working couples be taken care of [villages of origin for young people, interned for the elderly] so that their parents could move to work.
Workers' movements are highly controlled if they are far from home. In Yanqi County, in the north of the region, workers sent from the south cannot resign unless they receive written permission from several officials, in accordance with local government regulations.
Labor recruits undergo a "political investigation,quot; to determine if they pose a security risk. In Qapqal County, officials imposed rules to qualify potential recruits from the majority to the least reliable. The less reliable had to attend indoctrination classes in the afternoon, while only the most reliable could leave the county to go to work.
"There is great pressure on people to sign employment contracts," said Darren Byler, a Xinjiang expert at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Byler said many residents believed that resisting job transfers could lead to detention. "The threat of the camps looms over everyone's head, so there really is no resistance to factory work assigned," he said.
Official Chinese media report that workers earn $ 400 and up to a month, a decent income. The reality may differ, especially in smaller and more difficult factories. In a municipality in southern Xinjiang, two-thirds of the 43 factory employees whose salaries were included in the online records earned $ 114 a month, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert in Xinjiang who studied labor programs.
Amanzhol Qisa, a 31-year-old Xinjiang resident, spent a year in an indoctrination camp and in April was sent to work in a clothing factory for three months. She was paid $ 115 a month, less than half the minimum wage, according to her husband, Muhamet Qyzyrbek.
Qyzyrbek, a Kazakh citizen, said by phone from Shymkent, a city in southern Kazakhstan, that his wife had no choice but to accept the job. "After being released, you must work according to your policies," he said.
Beginning in late summer, villagers in Xinjiang get on buses that take them to cotton farms, sometimes hundreds of miles away. For a few intense weeks in the sun, they bend in the fields, picking up the harvest that ends in the Chinese clothing factories.
Teams of Communist Party officials in the villages hold "mobilization meetings,quot;, pressing farmers to register. The pay is good, they say.
"Go boldly and bring the money in cash," a village official in Dol Township in southern Xinjiang told dozens of farmers, according to a Local government report last year. Village officials urged team leaders to take special care of three 60-year-old villagers who had signed up to pick cotton, according to the report.
Xinjiang grows 85 percent of China's cotton, according to official estimates, and is pushing to make more textiles and clothing. And almost all links in the supply chain intersect with government work programs.
Large Chinese textile manufacturers, such as Huafu Fashion Company, based in eastern China, have promoted their role in the employment of minorities in the countryside, while denying that anyone was forced to take the job.
Some global companies have announced high quality Xinjiang cotton as a selling point. The Japanese retailer Muji describes that his flannel uses "hand-harvested,quot; cotton from the region.
The international concern for human rights in Xinjiang is pressing global retailers to examine their suppliers. United States recently banned clothing from Hetian Taida, a company in Xinjiang suspected of using workers in an indoctrination camp.
The parent company of Japanese retailer Uniqlo said the brand stopped working with production partners in Xinjiang. Muji from Japan did not respond to emails requesting comments. In August, its parent company, Ryohin Keikaku, said it was committed to banning forced labor, even among its business partners.
Until recently, Qapqal County had sent a total of more than 440 workers to eastern China to work in a factory that manufactures inflatable paddle pools and beds for export to the United States and other countries. The factory is owned by Bestway Leisure Products Company, which has sold such products to Walmart, Kmart and other retailers, according to export records.
Pat Fumagalli, strategy director of the US office. Bestway said the company finalized the program to take workers out of Xinjiang in October, after managers in the United States noticed reports on the region's work programs.
Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said in an email: "Responsible recruitment and volunteer work are two very important issues for Walmart."
Transform Holdco, the parent company of Kmart, declined to comment.
After The Times asked questions, inspectors acting for Walmart visited the factory. The inspectors of the The ICTI Ethical Toy Program examined the records and spoke with the managers. They found no disparities between the salary and conditions of workers in Xinjiang and elsewhere, said Mark Robertson, senior vice president of the inspection program.
"We did not have the opportunity to interview Xinjiang workers since none were working in the factory when we visited," he said.