The coronavirus crisis in China is giving the Communist government there an excuse to force the ethnically Muslim Uighur population, which they’ve reportedly imprisoned by the millions in concentration camps not far from the disease’s epicenter, to work in the country’s factories — and giving the Chinese government an excuse to greatly increase surveillance on Chinese individuals across the board.
The BBC reports that around “80,000 Uighurs were transferred out of the far western Xinjiang autonomous region to work in factories across China,” many from the country’s “detention camps” over the past several years to work in factories serving international corporations like Apple and Nike (and 83% of the world’s other best known brands). The recent spike of coronavirus deaths has led Chinese officials to press more Uighurs into forced labor.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which first reported the issue Monday, but has been covering the detention and force labor of China’s Uighur population for years, released a comprehensive study noting that the “forced labor” appears to be the next phase of Uighur “re-education” under Chinese Communist rule.
“The report said it was ‘extremely difficult’ for Uighurs to refuse or escape the work assignments, with the threat of ‘arbitrary detention’ hanging over them,” according to the BBC. “It added that there was evidence of local governments and private brokers being ‘paid a price per head’ by the Xinjiang government to organise the assignments, which ASPI describes as ‘a new phase of the Chinese government’s ongoing repression’ of Uighurs.”
“The Chinese government is now exporting the punitive culture and ethos of Xinjiang’s ‘reeducation camps’ to factories across China,” the study’s lead author told media in a statement released alongside the report.
“Our report makes it really clear that the dispossession of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang also has a really strong character of economic exploitation,” the study’s co-author added.
Both Apple and Nike released statements distancing themselves from the program.
“Apple is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Apple said, adding that they would “work closely” with Chinese suppliers to ensure there is no taint of forced labor. Nike said that their suppliers are “strictly prohibited from using any type of prison, forced, bonded or indentured labor.”
The coronavirus has provided the Chinese government with cover for additional “draconian measures” against the Uighur population. “Citing videos, photos and residents’ conversations with members of the Uighur diaspora, the group said that ‘many’ people have gone short on food, medicine or other critical supplies as they have been ordered to stay inside their homes,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Fortune argues that China is using the crisis to greatly expand the surveillance state: “The outbreak of Covid-19 has been anathema for most of China’s economy but the novel coronavirus was a shot in the arm for the state’s surveillance apparatus, which has expanded rapidly in pursuit of the epidemic’s spread. Facial recognition cameras, phone tracking technology and voluntary registrations have all been deployed to monitor the flow of people and the possible transmission of disease.”