In a lively Muslim area of Nanchang, China, a huge factory produces computer screens, cameras and fingerprint scanners. These products go to a supplier to major international technology companies like Apple and Lenovo.
Throughout the neighborhood, women with head coverings walk through the streets. Signs with Arabic-based lettering advertise Muslim food stores and noodle restaurants.
Yet the mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghurs who work at the factory are contained within a walled complex surrounded by security cameras and guards. They rarely walk around town. When they do, someone walks with them and observes their behavior.
The Uyghur factory workers are not permitted to practice Islam or cover their heads. At night, former and current workers in the area say, the Uyghurs must attend special classes to study ethnic unity and Mandarin Chinese.
The supplier OFILM owns the Nanchang factory. The connection between it and tech companies is the latest evidence that companies outside China are using parts made from forced labor by Uyghurs and other minorities.
Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group. About 12 million live in China’s far-western Xinjiang area. Over the past four years, the Chinese government has detained more than a million people in internment camps and prisons across Xinjiang.
The Chinese government says it is fighting a rise in Islamic extremism as well as a separatist movement that calls for an independent Uyghur nation. It has described the internment camps as job training centers as well as boarding schools.
But former camp detainees have said they were held in abusive conditions, forced to reject their religion and made to promise their support to China’s ruling Communist Party.
When detainees are released from the camps, documents show, many are sent to work in factories. More than 10 Uyghurs and Kazakhs who spoke with The Associated Press said they knew people sent by the government to work in factories in China’s east. Some were sent directly from the camps. Others were taken from their homes. Most were forced, they say.
A report released this month by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimates that, between 2017 and 2019, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were taken from Xinjiang to factories in other parts of China. The report said it found “conditions that strongly suggest forced labor,” based on International Labor Organization definitions.
At the OFILM factory, Uyghurs are paid the same as other workers. But they are treated much differently, people who live near the factory say. The Uyghurs are not permitted to leave or pray – unlike the Hui Muslim migrants who also work at the factory. The Chinese government considers Hui Muslims less of a threat than Uyghurs.
“They don’t let them worship inside,” said a Hui Muslim woman who worked in the factory for several weeks alongside the Uyghurs. “They don’t let them come out.”
“If you’re Uyghur, you’re only allowed outside twice a month,” a small business owner who spoke with the workers confirmed.
“The government chose them to come to OFILM, they didn’t choose it.”
The Chinese government says the labor program is a way to train Uyghurs and other minorities and give them jobs. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently called concern over possible forced labor under the program “groundless” and “slander” -- or false information meant to cause people to have bad opinions on the issue.
But experts say that, like the internment camps, the labor program is part of a larger attack on Uyghur culture. They say the government is breaking up social and family links so that Uyghurs living far from home will become more like the majority Han Chinese culture.
“They think these people are poorly educated...backwards, can’t speak Mandarin,” said James Leibold, a professor of Chinese ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “So what do you do? You ‘educate’ them, you find ways to transform them in your own image. “Bringing them into the Han Chinese heartland is a way to turbocharge this transformation.”
OFILM’s website states that Xinjiang workers make screens, camera cover lenses and fingerprint scanners. It says its buyers include Apple, Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, HP, LG and Huawei.
Apple’s most recent list of suppliers, published in January 2019, includes three OFILM factories in Nanchang. It is not confirmed if the OFILM factory that AP visited in Nanchang supplies Apple, but it has the same address as one listed. Another OFILM factory sits less than a kilometer away. Apple did not answer repeated requests for information on which Nanchang factory it uses.
OFILM’s website also notes it supplies PAR Technology, an American sales systems provider. PAR Technology says it supplies products to major fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Subway. The AP was unable to confirm that products from OFILM are being used by the fast food companies.
McDonald’s says it has asked PAR Technology to discontinue purchases from OFILM while it launches an immediate investigation. PAR Technology also said it would investigate immediately.
I’m Ashley Thompson.
And I’m Jonathan Evans.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
scanner - n. a device that reads or copies information or images into a computer
noodle - n. a thin strip of dough that is made from flour, water, and eggs and that is cooked in boiling liquid
internment - n. the act of putting someone in a prison for political reasons or during a war
worship - v. to honor or respect (someone or something) as a god
allow - v. to permit
transform - v. to change (something) completely
turbocharge - v. to add speed or energy to something
address - n. the words and numbers that are used to describe the location of a building and that are written on letters, envelopes, and packages so that they can be mailed to that location