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How Companies Profit From Forced Labor In Xinjiang

Erzhan Qurban after his release from forced-labor factory associated with the a reeducation camp in Ghulja, Xinjiang, China.

On November 3, 2018, Erzhan Qurban, a middle-aged Kazakh man from a small village 50 kilometers from the city of Ghulja in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, was released from the camp where he had been held for nine months. He thought that perhaps now he would be free to return to his former life as an immigrant in Kazakhstan. Yet just a few days later, he was sent to work in a glove factory back in Ghulja city.

Erzhan had been detained soon after he came back to China to seek medical treatment for his daughter and care for his ailing mother in early 2018. In an interview with the German magazine Die Zeit, he said:

On the evening of February 8, 2018 they picked me up in a minibus. It was already dark and they put black plastic sacs over our heads and handcuffs on our wrists. There were five young men from my village with me in the minibus. The room in which I had to stay for the next nine months was 5 meters by 5 meters and located on the third floor. On the door, a sign said “No. 12”. Our floor alone accommodated 260 men. In my room, we were twelve. Later I heard that there had been more than 10000 men detained in our camp.

Erzhan was unsure exactly where the camp was located. Based on the timing of his detention, it was likely the one up by the base of the mountains, rather than the one where his coworkers were held just 8 kilometers from the glove factory.

Images showing the construction of a camp on the outskirts of Ghulja city between October 8, 2017 and May 12, 2019. Many internment factory workers were held in this camp before being transferred to an industrial park 6 kilometers away.

As has been often reported by camp survivors, conditions in the camp where appalling. Describing the circumstances of his detention, Erzhan said:

The toilet was a bucket by the window, there was no running water. In the daytime, we were sitting in rows on our plastic stools. The food was handed to us through an opening in the door. At 7 am, we had to sing the Chinese national anthem, and then we had three minutes for breakfast. Afterwards, we learned Chinese until 9 pm. Our teachers were Kazakhs or Uyghurs. We were watched by four cameras in our room, which ensured that we didn’t talk to each other. Those who spoke anyway were handcuffed and had to stand by the wall. “You don’t have the right to talk, because you are not humans,” said the guards. “If you were humans, you wouldn’t be here.”

Erzhan said he still does not know why he was taken. Like others detained in Ghulja, the “micro-clues” (微线索 wēi xiànsuǒ) of his “pre-terrorist extremism” were likely the fact that he possessed a passport and had traveled to Kazakhstan, one of 26 Muslim-majority countries on a Chinese state watch list. In any case, over time the grueling routine began to change his mental state. He said: “The first two months, I thought of my wife Maynur and my three children. Some time later, I only thought about food.”

In May 2018, about the time that Erzhan was reduced to thinking about his bodily survival, Pan Daojin, the Front Commander and Party Secretary of Yili Prefecture, arrived to inspect a newly built industrial park on the other side of Ghulja. He came with a delegation from Jiangsu that was tasked with providing industrial “aid” in Xinjiang. Party Secretary Pan, who was also from Jiangsu, “fully affirmed the achievements” of the business leaders from Nantong City in Jiangsu who had funded the industrial park. The delegation showed off the new factory of the Jiangsu-based Solamoda Garment’s Group — a company that partners with Forever 21 and other international brands. They also stopped by the glove factory, the Yili Zhuowan Clothing Manufacturing Company, where Erzhan would be eventually sent. It was managed by employees of the Luye Shuozi Island Trading Company, a manufacturer based in Baoding city in Hebei Province.


The general manager of the glove factory where Erzhan and Gulzira were interned, Wang Xinghua, speaking in a state TV interview in December 2018.

According to the general manager of the glove factory, Wang Xinghua, speaking in state TV interview released in December 2018, “With the support of the government, we have already ‘recruited’ more than 600 people.” One of these 600 government “recruits” was Erzhan, who had arrived from the camp less than a month before. Continuing, General Manager Wang said that since the founding of the new factory in 2017, “We have generated more than $6 million in sales. We plan to reach 1,000 workers by the end of this year. We plan to provide jobs to 1,500 people by the end of 2019.”

According to a state-sponsored report, on August 15, 2017, 1,805 minority herders and farmers entered the new industrial park and “put on leather shoes” to become industrial workers.

In fact, the glove factory in Ghulja has now far surpassed the capacity of its parent factory. Back in Hebei, the company employed less than 200 employees. Moving manufacturing to Xinjiang made sense for the company, which sold 96 percent of its leather and fleece gloves across the border in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the company’s Alibaba distribution site, it notes that the price of the gloves range from between $1.50 and $24.00 per pair, depending on the style of the glove and quantity purchased. Some are distributed by the up-scale Hong Kong-based boutique Bread n Butter, which has outlets in malls around the world. Through detainee work, the company is generating tremendous profits.

But there were other reasons why exponential growth was so easy. Since 2018, the state has provided subsidies to build factories and ship goods from Xinjiang. Construction of the factories was often funded by local governments in Eastern China as part of a “pairing assistance” program. Up to 4 percent of new factory sales volume was subsidized in order to cover shipping expenses from the new location. A state program gave reeducation system employers 5,000 yuan ($700) for each coerced worker they trained. Most importantly, as in every county in Xinjiang, there was a standing reserve of tens of thousands of desperate, traumatized detainees like Erzhan in nearby camps.

Since 2017, factories have flocked to Xinjiang to take advantage of the cheap labor and subsidies offered by the reeducation camp system. In fact, in late 2018, the primary development ministry for the region circulated a statement, first noted by Adrian Zenz, that the camps — or so-called “vocational skills education and training centers” (教育培训中心 jiàoyù péixùn zhōngxīn) — had become a “carrier” (载体 zàitǐ) of the economy. Because of this system, Xinjiang had attracted “significant investment and construction from coast-based Chinese companies.” This was particularly the case in Chinese textile and garment-related industries, since China sources 80 percent of its cotton in Xinjiang. In an effort motivated at least in part by rising labor costs among Han migrant workers on the east coast, by 2023, the state plans to move more than 1 million textile and garment industry jobs to the region. If they succeed, it will mean that as many as one in every 11 textile and garment industry jobs in China will be in Xinjiang. The 1,500 jobs at the glove factory in Ghulja are part of that number.


Since 2017, factories have flocked to Xinjiang to take advantage of the cheap labor and subsidies offered by the reeducation camp system.


In a July article, the scholar Adrian Zenz described three primary tracks through which Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are involuntarily assigned to work in the newly built factories. First, many detainees in camps are placed in factories inside or adjacent to camps. Others, as in the case of Erzhan, are assigned to factories in newly built industrial parks or “satellite factories” (卫星工厂 wèixīng gōngchǎng) near their hometowns. Second, some new industrial parks host a mix of detainees and “rural surplus laborers” who are not former detainees. Third, still other coerced workers (particularly women with young children) are assigned to work in satellite factories supplemented by daycare facilities near their hometowns. As Zenz concludes, all three of these tracks result in forms of family separation and dependence on the state and private industry proxies for training and discipline in Chinese-speaking environments. Furthermore, in all cases, Turkic Muslim detainees are forcibly assigned to these positions. Refusing to work could result in their detention. As numerous state documents have noted, refusing “poverty alleviation” (扶贫 fúpín) schemes (a euphemism for the entire reeducation system) is regarded as a sign of resistance and religious extremism.

A screenshot of Gulzira Auelkhan testifying at the Kazakh rights organization Atajurt about labor conditions at a glove factory in Ghulja, Xinjiang, where she was forced to work.

Several months before Erzhan arrived at the glove factory, another Kazakh detainee named Gulzira Auelkhan was also transferred from a nearby reeducation camp to work at the factory. Before arriving, Gulzira, a 39-year-old mother of a toddler, had endured 15 months of horrific abuse in crowded cells with 18 to 60 other detainees.

Like Erzhan, when she was released from the camp, she thought she may be given greater freedom. But, as she told the Globe and Mail, within several days a local village leader appeared with a document saying that she must report for work at the glove factory.

When she arrived, she was told that as a trainee she would be paid 600 yuan (a little more than $80) per month, less than half the minimum wage, for the first three months. She would also be paid a small amount, less than 1 yuan ($0.014) per pair of gloves, according to her “efficiency.” “The most skilled worker could sew 60 pairs a day,” she said. “I tried my best, but I could only sew 13 pairs.”

Although there was much less security in the factory, the detainees were not allowed to leave. “After being in a camp, your ID card would ring whenever you went through metal detectors, and they’d take you to the police station to be interrogated, making it impossible to be free,” Gulzira said. As she told the AFP, every night after work she and other detainees were taken to a makeshift dormitory about three kilometers away. The blue-roofed buildings, which had been inspected and approved by Party Secretary Pan Daojin several months before the detainees were transferred to the factory, were built on the soccer field of a local high school.


Front Commander and Ili Prefecture Party Secretary Pan Daojin (center) inspects internment factory dormitory construction with the Nantong “Xinjiang Aid” Working Group in May 2018.

In the dormitory, detainees were permitted to walk around the campus of the high school, but they were not permitted to leave the premises. According to reporting from the Globe and Mail, the workers “received readings in the factory before work and, at day’s end, 45-minute Chinese lessons in the dormitory, where they were watched at night by an official.”

Both Erzhan and Gulzira were permitted to briefly visit their families after lunch on Saturdays. A company bus would ferry them back and forth from the dormitory to their home villages. A month into their “training,” however, they found out that these trips were quite costly. Bosses at the factory, such as General Manager Wang, told them that because of the expense of the shuttle service and their food expenses, their 600-yuan salary would be slashed in half. Erzhan later recalled, “I worked on a production line for 53 days, earning 300 yuan ($40) in total.”

Since the factories function as an extension of the camp system, outside the rule of law, prevention of worker abuse depends on the moral code of people like General Manager Wang. He knew just as well as Erzhan or Gulzira that if they complained or resisted in any way, he could replace them with other detainees. In December 2018, managers at the factory threatened Gulzira in order to get her to sign a one-year work contract. They told her that if she didn’t sign, she would be sent back to the camp.

Newly built industrial parks in Northwest China occupy a liminal space between labor camps and private industry, proletarianization and social elimination. State documents note over and over again that the new industrial parks are being built to teach “basic quality” to Uyghur and Kazakh detainees and other surplus laborers. What is left unsaid is that in Xinjiang, the labor is coerced, and furthermore is subsidized and directed by the state. The system is enforced by a complex web of technological surveillance that includes teachers, guards, “relatives,” and police that monitor the populace.

The goal of the internment factories is to turn Kazakhs and Uyghurs into a docile yet productive lumpen class — one without the social welfare afforded the rights-bearing working class. This system of controlled labor is, in the words of the state, “carried” (载体 zàitǐ) forward by a massive internment camp system, a mechanism that ensures that this new class of interned laborers cannot organize as a class for themselves. The only thing that protects Turkic Muslim workers from exploitation and violence is the good will of their Han managers. People like General Manager Wang and Party Secretary Pan know they have near unlimited power at their disposal within these spaces. They know that in the global race to the least cost for the highest rates of production, the glove factory in Ghulja is as low as it goes.

This essay first appeared on September 4, 2019 in the journal SupChina.

From camps to prisons: Xinjiang’s next great human rights catastrophe

Ethnic Kazakhs from Xinjiang hold up photos of their sentenced relatives.

Just a little over a decade ago, the facility on 1327 Dongzhan Road, a few kilometers north of the forlorn freight station in the northern outskirts of Xinjiang’s Urumqi, was mostly trees and grass. On September 16, 2009, it officially became the new location of the Xinjiang Women’s Prison and of the Qixin Clothing Factory (run by “marketing specialist” Zong Liang, a Party member for whom prisons were his entire career). The move came on the heels of the infamous July 5 riots, and it wouldn’t be long before the new facility received what would become its first high-profile inmate – the writer, website moderator, and government employee Gulmire Imin. Convicted of “splittism, leaking state secrets, and organizing an illegal demonstration”, Imin was sentenced to life in a closed trial, despite alleged torture and lack of access to a lawyer.

In the years that followed, the prison compound saw the construction of several new buildings, the continued operation of Qixin (together with the addition of another clothing company), and allegations of abuse, torture, and illegal imprisonment by Falun Gong groups. Despite continued international attention, Gulmire Imin was not freed, and – with the coming of Chen Quanguo in late 2016 – has instead been joined by other women whose modest biographies are in stark contrast with the gravity of their sentences. One of them, Buzeynep Abdureshit, a 27-year-old whose only possible “crimes” were having studied in Egypt and having a husband abroad, was sentenced to seven years in 2017 for “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”. In June of this year, the prison also became home to Nurzada Zhumaqan and Erlan Qabden – both ethnic Kazakh women in their fifties, both with health issues, and both having committed no identifiable crime. Their prison terms? 20 and 19 years, respectively.

Guards at a registration booth of the women’s prison in Urumqi. (source: “Xinjiang Prison Discipline Inspection and Supervision” WeChat account.)

Their barbarian nature aside, these recent sentences are particularly worrying as they indicate the likely direction in which the repressions in Xinjiang are now heading. Following a year and a half of the incarceration of millions in police detention centers and de facto concentration camps, the Chinese authorities have unmistakably changed course in the fall of 2018. In an effort to fend off both international condemnation and the increased media coverage, Beijing has reacted by launching a campaign to whitewash the camps – through media propaganda, Potemkin tours, and solicited diplomatic approval – while simultaneously dismantling the system and releasing many into various forms of residential surveillance or forced job placement. However, as suggested by the government’s own statistics, some limited reporting, and the new evidence presented by victims’ relatives and former detainees in neighboring Kazakhstan, an incredible number of those detained in 2017 and 2018 are now being given lengthy sentences and transferred to major prisons like the one in Urumqi.

The official incarceration notice for Erlan Qabden (with corresponding English translation by the author).

For Aibota Zhanibek, the older of Nurzada Zhumaqan’s daughters and now Kazakhstan citizen, the news was especially heartbreaking as it came around the New Year – a time when many in Kazakhstan were learning that their relatives had been let out of camps in the wave of mass releases in late December 2018. While many shared the good news, Zhanibek would learn that her mother had not been released but instead had been given a 15-year sentence (later confirmed as 20). The charges, officially presented as “using superstition to undermine law enforcement” and “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”, were, according to Zhanibek, founded on her mother having studied with an imam in 2005, praying and teaching others how to pray, and letting her younger daughter briefly study religion at a girls school in Yunnan province. Another supposed charge, dismissed by Zhanibek as completely absurd, is that her mother – a shop owner and housewife – had called on other women to cover their faces. In the case of Erlan Qabden, a nurse from another county of the same prefecture as Zhumaqan, the charges – “using extremism to undermine law enforcement”, “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” – are just as vague, and the probable roots equally strange. According to her relatives in Kazakhstan, Qabden was detained for attending a weekly flagraising ceremony with a headscarf on – a necessity given the medical treatment she was undergoing at the time.

At the office of the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization in Almaty, where Zhanibek appears weekly to appeal for her mother on camera and the only place in the world that offers such a service, things are no longer as busy as they once were, following a government crackdown on the group’s activity. Still, of the twenty-odd people who do come to testify and appeal on a given week, the vast majority no longer talk of camps – as was the case a year ago – but of prisons. Most of the information is fragmentary and corrupted by hearsay, and only in a small handful of cases do people have the official documents to prove their relatives’ imprisonment. However, just talking to a dozen or so of the appealing parties is sufficient to start noticing the trends: the long sentences, the months or even years of pre-trial detention, and the “popular” destinations (a prison in Wusu City, the “Zhanga Turme” prison in Kunes County’s Qarabura Township, the recently constructed Bingtuan Prison in southwestern Urumqi). Religious men, in particular, appear to be especially targeted for formal imprisonment.

Owing to Atajurt’s months of evidence gathering – presented to the world as thousands of public video testimonies and parsed into usable form by the Xinjiang Victims Database – a statistical profiling of the victims, even if approximate, makes it possible to corroborate some of these observations in a more rigorous manner. In comparing the 204 Kazakh victims who are reported to have received prison sentences with the 229 Kazakh victims who were reported released from camp, one notices a striking contrast: over 90% of the sentenced are men (cf., 69% of the released), with almost 75% believed to be detained for religious reasons (cf., 27%), as opposed to for going abroad (i.e., to Kazakhstan) or having contact with the outside world (e.g., using the WhatsApp chat client). The older demographic (55+) is also less represented among the sentenced, while the youngest (18-35) is represented slightly more.

In addition to being consistent with the appeals of those currently visiting the Atajurt office, this apparent persecution of religious men is further corroborated by former members of China’s religious system. Nurbergen*, once a government-licensed imam who himself followed the Party line and preached its ideology prior to his relocation to Kazakhstan a few years ago, talks of how the government had taken him and other imams on study tours around inner China, training them to be loyal and patriotic, but only to ultimately jail most of them in the recent crackdowns. One of his former colleagues, Nurgazy Malik – the editor-in-chief of the government-approved “Friday Sermon” magazine – was said to have died in detention last November, with friends and relatives in Kazakhstan holding a funeral for him soon after.

“They raised us like sheep,” Nurbergen says. “They took us all around the country, trained us. And then, having fattened us up, slaughtered us.”

In a recently published interview in The Believer, Qulzhabek Nurdangazy, another former state-approved imam having since relocated to Kazakhstan, says much of the same – noting that the imams were among the first targets of the mass detentions, which then gradually spread to anyone having anything to do with Islam.

A comparison of age, gender, and detention-reason distributions for Kazakh victims who have been sentenced to prison vs. Kazakh victims who were released from camp. (source: Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on September 17, 2019)

Another stunning statistic is the alleged length of the sentences. An analysis of 311 victims with reported prison terms shows an average sentence of 11.2 years, with 89% of the sentenced given a term of 5 years or longer. While it should be underscored that the vast majority of the reported numbers are obtained through oral testimony, which in turn is often based on hearsay, those cases for which official notices are available – such as Zhumaqan’s (20 years) or Qabden’s (19 years) – appear to suggest that these reports are not mere exaggerations. There are also cases when the number is “semi-official”, such as that of Qaliolla Tursyn – a 70-year-old legal consultant whose entire family, wife and two sons, was detained in March 2018 after he tried to send a complaint to the authorities in Beijing. While going to the Chinese consulate in Almaty to submit an invitation letter, Tursyn’s daughter-in-law says that she was taken aside by three members of the consular staff and told that Tursyn had been given a 20-year sentence, though no official documentation was presented.

The reported prison terms of victims who have been sentenced in Xinjiang since late 2016. (source: Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on September 17, 2019)

Among the documented cases, there are also those that offer insight into how long a person can be detained – sometimes extralegally – prior to being sentenced. An analysis of 65 such victims detained for 2 months or longer shows that, for these victims, the average pre-sentence detention was approximately 9 months, with over 30% held for a year or longer. In the case of detention within China’s legal framework, this usually means being interned in a pre-trial detention center (kanshousuo) – a notoriously abused institution where former detainees have reported extreme mistreatment and horrible living conditions.

However, there are also very strong grounds to believe that those interned extralegally in the region’s “re-education” camps are also being sentenced while still in the camps. Two Kazakh ex-detainees that I spoke to – both having spent the majority of 2018 in the “re-education” centers – talked of witnessing “open court sessions”, where camp inmates were assigned prison sentences based on any number of “transgressions” or displays of poor “study” performance. One of the two, Ruslan*, a Kazakhstan citizen who was able to return to Kazakhstan just months ago, says that this started towards the end of last year. Picking up his phone, he contacts another ex-detainee from the same facility for help remembering the names of four fellow inmates who were given prison sentences of 10 years or longer: Abdunasir, Paruq, Syndar, Zhiger.

Durations that victims spent in prolonged detention, of 2 months or longer, prior to being sentenced. (source: Xinjiang Victims Database, accessed on September 17, 2019)

While he does not know their last names, Ruslan recognizes the photo of the last one – Zhiger Toqai, his former cellmate and a student at the Satbayev University in Almaty, who returned to China during the 2017 summer break and was arrested for allegedly writing a poetry verse about how Kazakh women shouldn’t get married to Han Chinese men. Toqai’s relatives in Kazakhstan had started appealing for him in January.

“People who got less than 10 years stayed there,” Ruslan recalls. “The ones who got 10 or more were sent off to the real prisons.”

Ergali Ermek, another ex-detainee who spent over a year in detention before being released at the end of last year, mentions the “10-year rule” as well, while adding that at his facility the sentencings started in early 2018, but that it would only be in October that the people given long sentences started being taken and bussed away at night. He himself did not attend any of the “open sessions”, but does recall his cellmates talking about them.

Finally, in a recently published interview, Rahima Senbai, who spent about a year in detention before being released and eventually allowed back to Kazakhstan, recalls a single day in camp that was unlike the rest:

“Except for the day I arrived and the day I left, only one day in the camp was different. That was the day of the open trial. They brought in seven women from a nearby prison who had been charged with gathering in a private home to pray together. During Ramadan, in the evening, you celebrate auyzashar [iftar], and the seven women had organized a meal and a prayer. That was their crime. At the trial, they read these accusations and sentenced each of the women to seven years in prison. They called it open court. None of the women spoke.”

Whether intentionally or at the mercy of their own momentum, the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang appear to be creating yet another fight-or-die scenario without a middle ground. By employing their legal framework to do what the extralegal ultimately could not, they are effectively casting away all pretenses of legitimacy, and giving many no choice but to do the unthinkable – to defy China its sovereign right to decide what is and isn’t legal.

University student Zhiger Toqai, arrested in the summer of 2017, was first sent to camp, then sentenced to over 10 years in prison in 2018 (as confirmed by both his relatives and those who were in camp with him).

And yet, there do remain indications that the unthinkable may not be that wild after all, as the ease with which the sentences are given may signal the ease of their repeal. Ruslan recalls how he too was sentenced to 7 years for having gone to Kazakhstan, before being released a month or two later. Ergali Ermek was sentenced also – being taken to a formal court in April 2018 and given a 3-year term for four different reasons, the verdict officially stamped. Yet in the December of the same year, following what he believes was pressure from the Kazakhstan government, officials visited his facility and asked the inmates which of them had relatives in Kazakhstan, with Ermek raising his hand and ultimately being let go not long after. Finally, in what may be the most inspirational case so far, Gulbahar Haitiwaji – an Uyghur woman with French residence who was arrested in early 2017 and sentenced to 7 years at the end of 2018 for “disturbing social order” – made it back to France just recently, following her daughter’s persistent campaigning.

While there is much to despair about in the Xinjiang of today, the same wanton abuse of the law that gives rise to the despair is also what opens the door for hope and possibility. Perhaps, even for those like Gulmire Imin.

* Names altered at the sources’ request.

Friends from Xinjiang: Fight Back with Your Art!

CALL FOR ART! Join the scholar Yixiaocuo and contribute to the Camp Album Project


The Camp Album is a multimedia project envisioned as a way for people from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to express their feelings in a safe and anonymous way while raising awareness of the ongoing human rights abuse and cultural genocide that confronts Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim minorities in the region. Fight your anxiety and depression, show the world what your trauma looks and feels like, and take back your power!

Minority artists from the region whose families are directly impacted by the camps are particularly encouraged to contribute to the project. Submissions will be collectively displayed online and at exhibitions worldwide to amplify Uyghur, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Hui, and Tatar diaspora voices and stories. Exhibiting on a single platform will form solidarity and community for healing, and most importantly, give you a stronger voice!

Follow this link for the official “CALL FOR ART.”


Below is a selection of art created by Yixiaocuo, other minority artists from Xinjiang, and allies in the fight against the camps. See the rest of the art and more about what their significance is in the Camp Album Project gallery.

“Eid Mubarak: A Phone Call with Family” (Yixiaocuo)

“Abdurehim Heyit and ‘The Encounter'” (Sulu) 

“Daily Reflection of a Xinjiang Person” (Yixiaocuo)

“Second Nature” (Nijat Hushur)

“WeChat” (Yixiaocuo)


Uyghur Love In A Time Of Interethnic Marriage

From a double marriage involving twin Uyghur sisters and a Han and Uyghur man in Yarkand on March 14, 2019.

In May 2019, a young Uyghur graduate student in Europe who I’ll refer to as Nurzat received a WeChat video call from his panic-stricken girlfriend in a small city in southern Xinjiang. The young woman, who I’ll call Adila, told him that she would break up with him if he didn’t come back within the next several months to marry her. She said her parents were forcing her to do this. They thought that the risk of her being chosen for marriage by a Han young man was too high. They needed to find a Uyghur husband for her now, in order to protect her. Adila told Nurzat, “Please don’t blame me for doing this. A lot of Uyghur women are rushing to get married now. Everyone is afraid.”

Nurzat and Adila met when they were both college students in Ürümchi. She had been placed in a major that put her in line for a job in the police force back in her hometown, while he found a computer engineering track that led him to graduate school. Unlike previous generations of Uyghurs, whose marriages were arranged by their parents, they had chosen each other and had been in love for nearly five years.

In May 2017, Nurzat took a risky trip back to Xinjiang to see her. They spent 10 days in a hotel near the Ürümchi airport, seldom going out for fear that Nurzat would be checked by the police and questioned about his time abroad. He wore a baseball cap low over his eyes, thinking that this might help disguise his appearance. Yet, despite the care he took, not even calling his parents, he was nevertheless pulled aside for questioning on the street. His heart thumping, he handed the officer his old ID card from when he was a student in Ürümchi. The ID showed that his household registration was still in Ürümchi rather than his hometown in southern Xinjiang. Miraculously, it worked — the system, it seemed, hadn’t registered that he had traveled abroad and that he had graduated from college more than three years earlier. The officer returned his ID. Several days later he left to finish his Master’s degree, promising to return two years later.

Now two years had passed and their future “love marriage” had been thrown into question by the pressure of the Uyghur reeducation system.

A video that claims Xinjiang has always been a site of racial hybridity and that, now that it is “safe,” there are many beautiful Uyghur women who would love to have a Han husband.

Although historical rates of interethnic marriage between Uyghurs and Han Chinese has been a tiny fraction of one percent of Uyghur marriages, since 2018 there has been a notable rise in articles promoting marriage between Han men and Uyghur women. A recently published marriage guide, “How to win the heart of a Uyghur girl,” assumes that the reader is a Han man looking for a Uyghur woman. The author, Yu Longhe, who describes himself as a Han “volunteer” who works for the People’s Production and Construction Corps, begins by describing his impressions of Uyghur women as both stunningly beautiful and exceptionally caring. In doing so, he echoes a long history of Han erotic fantasies of Uyghur women. He notes, however, that it is important to not be so seduced by a Uyghur woman that one forgets to resolutely fight the three evils of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism.”

To get started, Yu advocates that the Han young man initiate the action by looking for opportunities to select a young Uyghur woman. After establishing a relationship, it is important to get the support of both sets of parents. The way to do this, he suggests, is by involving “social organizations” (社会组织 shehui zuzhi) and “local neighborhood watch cadres” (当地社区干部 dangdi shequ ganbu). While Yu notes that a marriage between a Han man and Uyghur woman is not a “traditional arranged marriage,” presumably since Han men maintain their agency in selecting a Uyghur woman, he nevertheless argues, “In an ‘ethnic’ love marriage, involving a third party (i.e. the government) is particularly important.” He suggests that “coordinating” between these local work units and social security workers will produce “strong backing and support” that cannot be defeated by “religious extremism.”

As an anthropologist who has spent several years studying gender and masculinity in Uyghur communities, I’ve been curious as to what the system described by this manual might look like from the perspective of Uyghur women. I wondered how it might fit into the panic Adila and Nurzat felt. Despite the stories and images of an increase in marriages between Han men and Uyghur women, no one has yet been able to determine the role of coercion in these marriages and their broader effects on Uyghur and Han society in the region. In order to begin to get some answers to these questions, a North America-based Uyghur collaborator I’ll call Abdulla contacted three of his former classmates, all young Uyghur women in southern Xinjiang who he had known for 10 years, to ask them about their love life. The responses he received from the young women, which were assessed by a North America-based female Uyghur researcher, who we refer to as Tumaris, were revealing not in the way they laid out definitive facts of how the process works, but in how it was reshaping their futures. Their accounts should be read simply as three perspectives from Uyghur single women who are being confronted with a changing reality in small Uyghur-majority cities in northwest China.

A video that argues the only reason Uyghur women have not married Han men in the past was due to culture and language differences, but that this is no longer a problem since Uyghur women are now fully trained in Han culture and Chinese language.

One of the first young women we contacted is someone I’ll call Gulmira, who now lives in a small city in southern Xinjiang. She said that, when it came to the lives of young Uyghur women, intermarriage was one of their most pressing concerns. She wrote, “Recently there are so many people getting married with the relatives.”

“Relatives?” we asked. To which Gulmira responded bluntly, using a term that Uyghurs use to refer to Han state workers, “Comrades. Do you understand what I mean?” She was referring to the more than 1.1 million mostly Han civil servants who have been sent to live in Uyghur homes over the past two years.

Continuing, Gulimara wrote that even though “people in the older generation don’t accept (these marriages with ‘comrades’), it has increased a lot. I don’t know if they are (doing it willingly) or not. I’m not in touch very much with those that have gone through with it. I think they must be doing it willingly. It seems like their families wouldn’t force them to do this. There are so many of them (that I personally know).”

Gulmira’s responses confirmed something that we heard from many members of the Uyghur community. Because it was seen as deeply shameful in the Uyghur community, both in Xinjiang and around the world, Uyghurs do not openly discuss why the number of marriages between Uyghur women and Han men have increased. Yet as we pressed her further, she began to reveal some of the ways in which pressure, if not coercion, has been exerted on Uyghur women to consider Han partners.

“Are you also thinking about (marrying a Han man) too?” we asked.

Gulmira responded, “Not now. I’ll delay it as long as I can by buying some time.”

Sensing that, in her mind, her eventual marriage to a Han man seemed inevitable, we asked, “Are there activities to date ‘comrades’?”

Gulmira rplied, “There are so many of these.” In her message, Gulmira emphasized this by adding an intensifier to the word “many” (Uy: jikku) to make clear that these activities were happening all the time.

“OMG, I can’t believe this,” Abdulla said, and then, using the common euphemism for the reeducation camps, asked, “If people say no to dating, will you go to ‘study’?”

Gulmira wrote: “Maybe even worse than ‘study.’” She said that her employer regularly organized “dance parties” on Friday evenings for the Uyghur women and Han “comrades” who worked at her firm. She wrote that she and other young women she knew tried to come up with excuses to not attend, ranging from feeling sick to having a date with a boyfriend. She said that the excuses had to be convincing or else her boss would become suspicious.

Some of these dynamics are also a product of the removal of a significant percentage of young Uyghur men from Uyghur social life. Another young woman who we will call Bahar pointed out that this absence adds to the new social pressure to marry Han men. In a series of text messages, she wrote that because so many young Uyghur men have been interned in her small city in southern Xinjiang, it is difficult for her to find a willing Uyghur marriage partner. Bahar noted that nearly all the Uyghur men who remained outside the camps worked as informants or low-level police officers and had low moral character. Many of them took advantage of the desperation of unmarried Uyghur women. Although Uyghur people often note that forms of patriarchy and male infidelity have been widespread in Uyghur society for decades, Bahar said that these forms of sexism have significantly worsened over the past several years.

She wrote, “The cheating is getting worse, because there are fewer and fewer men. Now there are many women who are over 30 who are still not married or who have lost their spouse. This has created a huge imbalance. That is why so many of ‘our’ girls are getting married with these ‘comrades.’”

Another one of Abdulla’s classmates, Rizwangul, confirmed that, in her small city, a similar dynamic was happening. But, unlike Bahar, she said she had a prospect that helped stave off her desperation. Rizwangul wrote, “There is a Hui boy chasing after me. He is so nice to me, I think he will cherish me in the future. He is nice to me and has a good personality. I am thinking as long as he does not create sorrows for me and makes me happy, that is good enough.”

Rizwangul had consigned herself to a “good enough” marriage with a man from another minority ethnic group, which, while not Uyghur, was at least Muslim.


A collage of images from recent marriages between Han men and Uyghur women. In most documented interethnic marriages Uyghur cultural traditions are notably absent.

Many of the state-approved online testimonials of marriages between Han men and Uyghur women seem to follow the trajectory outlined in the guide “How to win the heart of a Uyghur girl.” A Han security worker chooses a Uyghur woman, initiates contact, works with local authorities to convince the families to agree, and the marriage commences with gifts provided by local authorities. In nearly every published wedding narrative, the presence and support of local cadres and the visiting “relatives” is a major feature. For instance, in this double wedding of twin Uyghur sisters in Yeken to a Han volunteer and local Uyghur young man, the “county civil affairs bureau, town government cadres, the visiting ‘relative’ cadres, and the armed police all came to give their blessings.”

In another wedding story, a young Han construction worker from Gansu who had recently joined the People’s Production and Construction Corps spotted a Uyghur young woman working in the cotton fields. With gifts totaling 2,000 yuan ($290) and the backing of the township Party committee, the county-level cooperative, the “relatives” task force, and a religious management committee, the young man successfully married the young woman. In a short speech that repeated the terms “ethnic solidarity” (民族团结 mínzú tuánjié) 10 times, Jiang Tao, deputy secretary of the township party committee, told them they were a “model” for the township.

The thoughts of the deputy secretary were echoed in an essay published by the Chinese State Religious Network by an anthropologist named Mou Tao, who had “volunteered” (志愿 zhìyuàn) to work in the Uyghur reeducation system in Khotan prefecture. Drawing on her training at Minzu University in Beijing, she argued that “inter-ethnic marriage was a very important step in achieving national unity” because the marriage was not simply the joining of two people, but a relationship between two families. She posited that the main force keeping Uyghurs apart from Han was the “three evil forces.” In a line of argument that resonates with an influential study from the retired Peking University professor Ma Rong, one of the academic architects along with Hu Lianhe and Hu Angang of the state’s approach to Uyghur reeducation, Mou argued that inter-ethnic marriage should be normalized. She ends the essay with the following policy suggestions:

In the future, we must impose strict punishment on irresponsible remarks regarding marriages between young Uyghur and Han men and women and prevent isolation and threats toward those who intermarry. The government must also introduce relevant policies and measures to ensure the regular communication between young Uyghur and Han men and women. In addition to creating a good social atmosphere, appropriate rewards should also be given to the marriage of Uyghurs and Han; and care and preferential policies should be given to the children that come from Uyghur and Han marriages which face more social pressure.

This essay appears to encourage the institutionalization of the pressures that confront Adila and many other Uyghur women to marry Han men. Work units, neighborhood watch cadres, and visiting relatives are creating social situations and career-enhancing rewards for young Han men to pursue Uyghur women, while at the same time punishing those that speak badly or strive to prevent these interethnic marriages. In May 2019, Xinjiang authorities announced that the children of mixed-ethnicity marriages in which one parent is Han would receive 20 extra points on college entrance exams, while children in which both parents are ethnic minorities would only receive 15 (cut down from 50 points, a 70 percent decrease).

At a time when many people across China think of Uyghur men as potential terrorists and Uyghur women as potential fashion models, a new interethnic sexual politics is being institutionalized across Xinjiang. The exoticization of ethnic minority women by Han sex tourists has long been a feature in Chinese popular culture, but the active pairing of Han men with Uyghur women by state authorities marks a departure. It is one of the first times that minority women have become the sexual target of state institutions.

There is a great deal about the scale of new interethnic marriages between Uyghur women and Han men that must yet be examined. In general, state workers have hidden payment schemes, career advancement opportunities, and methods of coercion that incentivize Han men to follow through with these state-sponsored forms of political “intimacy” — an aspect of colonial rule that is key to establishing a new social order. We were not able to fully explore the forms of complicity that Uyghur women might pursue in order to protect themselves and their families and distance themselves from their devalued ethnicity. Nor were we able to fully examine the way some Han men may truly attempt to recognize their power and privilege as the embodiment of the colonizer and come to see themselves as allied in Uyghur struggles (something that the marriage manual advises against). Yet while many of the questions concerning this are unanswered, it’s worthwhile to push into the open what the feminist theorist Donna Haraway might refer to as “situated knoweldge:” knowledge of what interethnic marriage looks like from the embodied perspective of Uyghur women who experience these pressures as disempowering. We hope that this essay will be read as an invitation to begin a broader conversation around state-sponsored sexual violence.

In one of their last video chats, Nurzat promised Adila that he would come home in the next several months. Adila said she would buy a wedding dress and wait for him to arrive. But Nurzat knows that this may never happen. Adila likely knows this too. When their conversation turned to the future of Uyghur society, she scribbled a handwritten note which said, “We will never rise again.” After holding it up to the camera for a second, she popped it into her mouth, chewed methodically, and swallowed.

This article first appeared in the journal SupChina on August 7, 2019.