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U.S. takes aggressive steps against China for forcing Uighurs into labor

More than 1 million Uighurs, an ethnic-Muslim minority in China, are being detained in hundreds of Chinese detention facilities and camps, where there are reports of widespread torture and detentions that have evolved into forced labor. The Department of Homeland Security is now banning products thought to be made in China by forced Uighur labor. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, the Trump administration took one of its most aggressive steps yet against what it calls Chinese slave labor.

    The U.S. accuses Beijing of forcing ethnic Uyghurs, a Muslim minority who live mostly in Western China, into factory and farm jobs against their will.

    Nick Schifrin reports on how Uyghurs end up as forced laborers and the larger campaign that has ripped Uyghur lives and families apart.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Inside a massive network of detention, within a government campaign the U.S. calls close to genocide, one man is chained to a bed. He can't talk because of a guard outside his door, but his video speaks loudly about the conditions of his captivity and the fate of Muslim Uyghurs.

    Merdan Ghappar was a 31-year-old Uyghur model in Southern China. His flashy ads targeted Han Chinese, the country's majority ethnic group. But, in January, Chinese authorities detained him in a Xinjiang detention facility full of ethnic minority Uyghurs, whom the Chinese government calls disloyal.

    Pro-Beijing messages play from a loudspeaker. He secretly filmed and sent the video to his uncle, Ablikim Ghappar, who now lives in Amsterdam.

  • Ablikim Ghappar (through translator):

    When I saw the video clip, I really felt sorrow for my nephew.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Merdan sent text messages describing the conditions of his initial detention in a police station. He wrote: "The cop just shouted fiercely at me: 'If you lift that hood again, I will beat you to death.'" Merdan adds: "I don't want to die."

  • Ablikim Ghappar (through translator):

    In the detention center, they were tortured. The cell was very small and very crowded, more than 50 or 60 people. Every night, some people slept, while some people needed to stand. A hood was on their heads. They were always handcuffed, and their feet were chained.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Merdan's video, which was first reported by the BBC, is one of the first visual testimonies from what the Trump administration calls the human rights stain of the century, hundreds of detention facilities and camps that the U.S. says are filled with more than a million Uyghurs.

  • National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien:

  • Robert O’Brien:

    If not a genocide, something close to it going on in Xinjiang.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Xinjiang and a neighboring province, residents say the government has partially or completely destroyed at least a dozen mosques. A Communist Party program forcibly inserts Han Chinese into Uyghur families. And China has banned Uyghur language and music.

    The Chinese government calls some Uyghurs separatists and terrorists. It cites a 2009 riot and a 2013 Tiananmen Square attack claimed by Uyghurs who argue Xinjiang is an independent country.

    The Chinese government says it built camps to reeducate and deradicalize separatists. Today, the government claims the camps have closed. And, in September, President Xi Jinping shrugged off international criticism, as read by a Chinese state TV anchor.

  • Woman (through translator):

    The party's strategy of governing Xinjiang in the new era is completely correct and must be adhered to for a long time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that, since 2019, at least 61 camps and detention facilities have expanded or are newly constructed. And now international researchers say Uyghur detention has evolved into Uyghur forced labor.

  • Amy Lehr:

    The patterns of mass detention in Xinjiang are actually very closely linked to forced labor that we're seeing there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amy Lehr is with the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

  • Amy Lehr:

    There's an idea that you can reform people's minds and cut off their connection to their culture and religion by putting them to work in factory jobs.

    And so they're taking these detainees and either within the detention facilities or moving them into guarded dormitories requiring them to work in factories in the region.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Chinese government calls it poverty alleviation. Ethnic minorities and prisoners get low-skilled factory and agricultural work to improve their lives. Xi Jinping talked about it in September.

  • Man:

    President Xi Jinping says unprecedented achievements have been made in Xinjiang's economic and social development. Xi says the sense of happiness and security has increased among people of all ethnic groups.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But what Beijing calls security, the U.S. calls forced labor as business and governing model that profits Beijing $150 billion.

    Beijing's central planners pay companies in Eastern China to open factories in Xinjiang and train Uyghur workers. And the Xinjiang local government gets paid to build factories near Uyghur detention camps.

  • Amy Lehr:

    I actually interviewed a number of former detainees who were put to work. Their communications were monitored. They were paid in a year what they should have been paid in a month.

    The kind of treatment that these workers received when they are detained continues when they're working. You see that pattern of trying to decrease their connection to their own culture and increase their loyalty to the Communist Party within the system of work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Chinese government denies that.

  • Zhao Lijian(through translator):

    There is no so-called forced labor problem. Some anti-China forces try to use this made-up topic to smear China's image and seek their own political interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it's a policy decades in the making.

    In the 1950s, the Chinese government formed the XPCC, or Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. It guaranteed Xinjiang became more Han Chinese and less Uyghur. Today, the U.S. says the XPCC runs the detention camps and Xinjiang's textiles industry. XPCC created and owns many cotton fields, owns some gins where cotton is spun into yarn, and allegedly owns many of the cotton cut-and-sew factories.

    Xinjiang alone produces more than 20 percent of the world's cotton. And China is the world's largest cotton exporter. That global supply chain makes it hard for companies to trace whether their product were made with forced labor.

  • Sharon Waxman:

    We're working with all of these companies to help them really do that incredible detective work that they need to do to penetrate the deeper layers of the supply chain.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sharon Waxman is the president of the Fair Labor Association, a group of organizations and companies dedicated to protecting workers' rights around the world.

    She says, because Uyghur workers are too scared to tell the truth about their labor conditions, Western companies can't figure out who exactly is creating their products.

  • Sharon Waxman:

    It could happen on the cotton field. It could happen when the cotton is ginned, right? So, the risk of forced labor is cut across all the different rungs of the ladder.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Several clothing companies have promised to cut ties with Xinjiang factories and have taken steps to do so, but now the possibility of forced labor is harder to track.

    In 2018, the Chinese government moved 62,000 ethnic minorities out of Xinjiang to work across China. The Chinese government claims the workers move to follow higher salaries.

  • Sharon Waxman:

    If you're focusing only on Xinjiang, you have one region. And then, if you're looking at all workers in factories all over China, it takes it to a whole other level.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Trump administration has recently punished China for Uyghur forced labor. XPCC and Xinjiang party leaders have been sanctioned for — quote — "serious human rights abuses."

    The Department of Homeland Security banned all XPCC products it says are made with forced labor, and Customs and Border Protection has seized Uyghur-made hair extensions and women's gloves.

    In Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would block all Xinjiang cotton, co-sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern.

  • Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.:

    The evidence of systematic and widespread forced labor in Xinjiang is astounding and irrefutable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But under Xi Jinping, external pressure may be incapable of changing Chinese policy.

  • Sharon Waxman:

    The government is making the decisions about these really these horrendous abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It's part of a concerted policy. And only the government can change that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And there's no evidence China has any intention of changing its policy, as family members of the detained know all too well.

  • Ablikim Ghappar (through translator):

    China does not want to educate Uyghur people. They want to destroy them. They will just put you in jail just because you are Uyghur.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After Merdan Ghappar filmed and sent this video to his uncle, he hasn't been seen since.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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