Reports Reveal More Forced Labor, Retroactive Punishment for Religious Practice in Xinjiang

A set of reports published this week provide more detail about the brutality of repression against Uyghur women and the pervasiveness of forced labor in Xinjiang that taints global supply chains. Accompanying these revelations this week, the Chinese government imposed new measures to Sinicize religion in Xinjiang. 

On Thursday, the Uyghur Human Rights Project published the report “Twenty Years for Learning the Quran: Uyghur Women and Religious Persecution,” which highlights the intersection between the denial of religious freedoms and the denial of women’s rights in Xinjiang. As the report describes, the government’s “anti-extremism” campaigns and mass incarceration have targeted hundreds of thousands of women, denying them agency and criminalizing ordinary religious activities. Many sentences were handed down retroactively, often targeting elderly women for “crimes” that occurred when they were children:

Often the “crimes” are recorded as having occurred over a very short time period. Ezizgul Memet was detained on July 6, 2017. She was charged with illegally studying scripture with her mother Buhelchem Memet (deceased) for three days in or around February 1976, aged five or six years old. She was sentenced to ten years in prison. Tursungul Emet studied the Quran with her mother in 1974 for five days, aged five or six. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Some of the women included on the list were elderly, and would be unlikely, given the conditions in the region’s prisons, to survive their sentences. Patihan Imin was sentenced to six years in prison in 2017, aged 70. Her stated crimes were that she studied the Quran between April and May 1967, wore a jilbab between 2005 and 2014, and kept an electronic Quran reader in her home.

[…] Often the “crimes” occurred several decades before the date of detention. Tunisayim Abdukerim was sentenced to 13 years 11 months in prison for teaching the Quran to a group of local women for one month in January 1989, when she was 17 years old. Mihrigul Mehet was sentenced to 18 years 11 months in prison, charged with studying the Quran for 19 months in and around 1998; wearing a face veil in 2000 “under extremist influence”; and teaching the Quran to a local woman in 2013, for ten minutes a day over one week. The longest recorded prison sentence, of 20 years, was given to Aytila Rozi, who was charged with studying and teaching the Quran. Her record states that she learned to read the Quran while working in inner China in 2007, and subsequently taught and studied the Quran in a small group of women between 2009 and 2011. [Source]

Also on Thursday, new regulations came into effect in Xinjiang that force all new places of worship to reflect “Chinese characteristics and style.” This is part of a border Sinicization campaign that has come into sharper relief in recent months. In November, The Financial Times produced an investigation using satellite imagery showing that over 1,714 religious buildings across China have been altered, stipped, or destroyed to “harmonize” them with Chinese culture. In Ningxia, over 90 percent of mosques with Islamic architecture had features removed, and in Gansu, the figure was over 80 percent. Meanwhile, this month Xinjiang authorities are forcing Uyghurs to celebrate Lunar New Year with Chinese songs and dances, in what activists and experts say are government attempts to portray a false image of Uyghurs embracing Chinese culture.

Experts stated that the new regulations mark a significant escalation, and apply not just to religious sites but also “clothing, weddings, funerals, and other ethnic customs.” Bradley Jardine, managing director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL: “The move is significant, as it’s about cutting off China’s religions from international networks and communities and keeping them socially and politically isolated under the watch of the Chinese Communist Party.” Human Rights Watch gave more details on how the new regulations will apply:

“The Chinese government’s new regulations on religion in Xinjiang is the latest attempt to suppress Uyghur culture and ideology,” said Maya Wang, acting China director at Human Rights Watch. “The revisions aim to forcibly transform religious practice to be consistent with Chinese Communist Party ideology: to do otherwise risks imprisonment.”

[…] Under the 2024 regulations, religions must “practice the core values of socialism” and “adhere to the direction of Sinicization of religions” (article 5). Whether places of worship are being “built, renovated, expanded, or rebuilt,” they should “reflect Chinese characteristics and style in terms of architecture, sculptures, paintings, decorations, etc.” (article 26). The revisions also impose new requirements before religious institutions can apply to create places of worship (article 20), as well as more stringent restrictions and cumbersome approval processes for building, expanding, altering and moving places of worship (articles 22 and 25).

The “Sinicization” of religions, however, goes beyond controlling the appearance, number, location and size of religious venues, Human Rights Watch said. Places of worship must also “deeply excavate the content of [religious] teachings and canons that are conducive to social harmony … and interpret them in line with the requirements of contemporary China’s development and progress, and in line with the excellent traditional Chinese culture” (article 11). [Source]

Again on Thursday, Human Rights Watch released a major report on the complicity of international automobile companies in forced labor from Xinjiang. The report identified many of the industry’s biggest brands, including BYD, General Motors, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen, whose products reach markets across the globe. Here are some of the main findings:

The 99-page report, “Asleep at the Wheel: Car Companies’ Complicity in Forced Labor in China,” finds that some carmakers have succumbed to Chinese government pressure to apply weaker human rights and responsible sourcing standards at their Chinese joint ventures than in their global operations, increasing the risk of exposure to forced labor in Xinjiang. Most have done too little to map their aluminum supply chains and identify links to forced labor.

[…] The link between Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, the aluminum industry, and forced labor is the Chinese government-backed labor transfer programs, which coerce Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims into jobs in Xinjiang and other regions.

Human Rights Watch reviewed online Chinese state media articles, company reports, and government statements and found credible evidence that aluminum producers in Xinjiang are participating in labor transfers. Human Rights Watch also uncovered evidence that fossil fuel companies that supply coal to aluminum producers in Xinjiang have received labor transfer workers at their coal mines. Xinjiang’s aluminum smelters depend on the region’s abundant and highly polluting coal supplies to fuel the energy-intensive process of aluminum production. [Source]

Simina Mistreanu from the Associated Press provided context for the important role aluminum plays in the automobile industry and its presence in China:

More than 15% of China’s aluminum supply and about 9% of the global supply originates in Xinjiang, according to industry reports. The global automotive industry uses it for parts ranging from vehicle frames to wheels and battery foils.

China became the world’s largest car exporter last year and is the biggest manufacturer of battery-powered electric cars. The companies listed in the new report also include Chinese electrical vehicle giant BYD.

Global demand for aluminum is projected to double between 2019 and 2050, due in part to the growing popularity of electric vehicles, according to the International Aluminum Institute, a U.K.-based industry group. [Source]

In other recent media coverage of Xinjiang, The Diplomat published a short photo essay highlighting a new book by American photographer Kevin Bubriski. “The Uyghurs: Kashgar Before the Catastrophe,” contains photographs from Bubriski’s time in Kashgar during 1998, along with prose and poetry from poet and activist Tahir Hamut Izgil and a historical essay by American anthropologist Dru Gladney. Bubriski stated, “I hope that through the photographs viewers can get a feeling for the Uyghur way of life in Kashgar before the old city was demolished and before the limitations on cultural and spiritual life were so strict, severe, and dangerous.”

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