China Power | Society | Central Asia

Tracking Down the Fruits of Xinjiang’s Forced Labor Industry

A few clicks reveals several U.S. companies are benefiting from China’s oppression of Muslims.

By Juozapas Bagdonas for
Tracking Down the Fruits of Xinjiang’s Forced Labor Industry

In this Dec. 5, 2018, file photo, residents pass by the entrance to the “Hotan City apparel employment training base” where Hetian Taida Apparel Co. has a factory in Hotan in western China’s Xinjiang region.

Credit: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

Despite extensive proof about the widespread use of forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, U.S. retailers are continuing to turn a blind eye and cooperate with suppliers connected to the system. Research on global supply chain tracking system ImportGenius reveals five U.S. companies that have made orders from suppliers employing re-education camp detainees.

In December 2018, Badger Sportswear was accused of ordering a shipment of 1.5 million units from Hetian Taida, a manufacturer known to employ Uyghur detainees in its factories. This year, the retailer Costco was also found out to be buying apparel from Hetian Taida, which prompted the Trump administration to halt all shipments from the supplier on October 1. A quick glance in the records of ImportGenius shows that the last two shipments ordered by a U.S. company from Hetian Taida were made in September 21 and 26 by KHQ Investment LLC, an apparel wholesaler based in New York’s Empire State Building. Unlike the cases of Costco and Badger, the two orders of polyester blanket sleepers likely made by Muslim detainees in Xinjiang and bought by a company with an office located in the famous bastion of American business has so far escaped media attention. 

The case of Hetian Taida is unique since it is so far the only company to be mentioned in Chinese state media in direct relation to re-education camps. Other propaganda pieces describing Uyghur factory workers as being grateful to the Communist Party for saving them from becoming “terrorists” have not mentioned any specific entities’ names, instead opting to describe them in vague terms such as “a shoe company in Moyu county.” If the company name is mentioned, it is usually in context of reports on “poverty alleviation” rather than de-radicalization. However, companies’ registration addresses, dates, and vocabulary used in propaganda reports can give us important clues about their possible involvement in forced labor. The registry reveals that Hetian Taida was founded in October 17, 2018 in Hotan’s Beijing Industrial Park. This area is only one of several industrial zones in Hotan prefecture, all of which have recently been expanded to accommodate a significant workforce boost. 

Just a simple keyword search on the tracking system can reveal which companies are likely involved in forced labor in Xinjiang. Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories was registered in the Beijing Industrial Park in Hotan’s Lop county on January 19, 2018. A re-education camp in the same compound was identified by Radio Free Asia as the location of the famous picture showing hundreds of detainees listening to a de-radicalization speech. According to Haolin’s spokesman, the company has already employed 5,000 new workers in its first year of business – more than 2 percent of the entire county’s population. Data from ImportGenius shows that the company has made a total of 159 international shipments, which first went through ports in Vietnam and on to buyers from four U.S. cities. All of these companies belong to an entity called I&I Hair Corporation with headquarters in Newcastle, Georgia. With the last shipment having taken place on October 28, possibly more than a thousand tons of synthetic hair products made by detainees in Lop county have been ordered by the American company. I&I Hair runs a brand called “Oh Yes Hair” with a wide selection of braids and other hair products advertised on its Facebook page.

Another company with ties to U.S. businesses is Xinjiang Nuodun Garment, which has made several shipments of men’s and women’s trousers to four companies in the U.S. The supplier was founded in July 2017, a few months after the re-education policy kicked off, and is based in Kalpin county, Aksu prefecture. According to a piece in Chinese state media, Dongfeng Motors’ director Cheng Daoran visited Nuodun Garment factory in 2018 after his company donated a large sum to the county’s “poverty alleviation efforts.” His lavish greeting ceremony was held in front of the county’s so-called “vocational center” building. Furthermore, in September 24, the local Aksu Daily published a story mentioning Gulzhanur Emer, a villager who has been working in Nuodun Garment’s manufacturing chain since 2017. The company is mentioned in context of Aksu prefectural government’s wider policy of boosting the apparel manufacturing workforce through “concentrated learning,” which includes teaching “correct thinking, national language and knowledge of law” — the exact vocabulary which Chinese state media uses to describe lessons in re-education camps.

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Various reports and survivor testimonies about Xinjiang’s “re-education camps” reveal that forced factory labor is usually the next step for detainees who have successfully passed the examinations on Chinese language and Xi Jinping Thought. Xinjiang Victims Database has reported many cases of camp detainees being transferred to work for no pay in manufacturing gloves, footwear, and other apparel. According to Panjiva, another supply chain tracker, goods produced in these factories are then shipped to foreign countries, including Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Gloves from a factory where a former detainee Gulzira Auelkhan had worked are even available on the globally accessible e-commerce platform Alibaba

State media-produced propaganda about re-education camps also talks extensively about detainees “feeling free again” after being rid of extremist thoughts and joining the workforce in large manufacturing compounds. One promotional piece about Hotan claims that the prefecture’s “vocational schools” (a governmental name for re-education camps) are able to produce up to 300,000 new workers annually, which means that about 12 percent of the population of the entire prefecture could be “studying” in the facilities. That roughly corresponds to the figures human rights groups have published, which state that up to 2 million Muslims have been detained since 2017. 

It is likely that American companies form only a small part of the market for suppliers involved in Xinjiang human rights abuses. For instance, Russian retailing giant KARI is unlikely to drop its supplier Hotan County Maanni Shoes, despite the fact that it operates a factory in Hotan New Economic Zone, a massive industrial compound that possibly employs tens of thousands of former camp detainees, some who have been since resettled in a nearby village. However, United States businesses must serve as an example to counterparts around the globe and conduct adequate research before striking any deals with Chinese companies in Xinjiang.

Juozapas Bagdonas is a researcher for the Xinjiang Victims’ Database project.