Voices from the Fields of Xinjiang
It was a September day, hot and dusty, normal. Meryem Sultan was lined up in front of the school with three classes of Uyghur schoolkids waiting for the buses. Back when she was nine, Meryem hated these school trips to the country. She had to pick caterpillars off the crops because, she was told, Chinese people liked to eat them. Kind of weird. When she was ten, what bugged her was that she was the smartest kid in the class, but now the teachers said they had to pick cotton. Then they told Meryem off, right in front of everyone — “Meryem, your results at school mean nothing. If you can’t pick cotton? You’re useless.” It was humiliating, but other kids were getting regular beatings for slacking off. Anyway, it was “just part of going to school” so Meryem did it. Turned out, she could pick faster than almost anyone in the class, especially the boys. Once she got going, she was “an addict.”
Now she was 13 years old. And Meryem and her friend Hanzokre were kind of excited, standing at the front of the line, when the first bus arrived. But the other buses never came. So the teachers ordered all three classes onto the bus. Everyone jammed in, like 45 kids in all, sitting on each other’s laps, laughing and shouting. The teachers led the students in a few songs. The open windows helped a little at first, but the road was long — four hours — and as they crept along the old village roads, clouds of red dust filled the cabin. The holiday mood faded. Meryem had been separated from her friend in the crush. She knew that Hanzokre’s older brother, a 15-year-old boy named Alimjan, or “Ali,” was on the bus somewhere. He had a health problem. Actually, everyone knew it. And now, as if in a dream, she could hear Hanzokre, near the front of the bus, shouting: “My brother has a heart condition. He says he cannot breathe.”
The bus drove on. Ali’s sister kept begging the driver to stop. The teachers said that Ali was just “playacting.” Finally, Ali collapsed and fainted. Even then, the bus drove on. After an hour, a teacher examined Ali’s body, and the bus pulled over by the side of the road. The teachers called for an ambulance. After an hour delay, a “prison minibus” drove up, loaded Ali inside, and drove off to a hospital. His sister was told to stay on the bus, everyone was told to shut up, and they arrived at their new home, an abandoned prison from the Tarim Laogai system, Onsu County, Aksu Prefecture, with plastic sheeting rolled over the floor. There were rats around, frogs too, but the cotton fields were “infinite” and taller than Meryem’s head. After a long day’s work, she knew she would sleep okay.
That night, Meryem thought that Ali was just resting and getting better at the hospital. But maybe it was the teachers who were playacting all along. Ali was dead. To this day, none of the students know whether he died at the hospital, on the side of the road, or on the bus itself.
Throughout that cotton harvest — two months, every year — Meryem knew that her fellow Han Chinese students were back in the classroom. And she also knew, although she wouldn’t have described it that way back then, that her teachers were getting some sort of kickback from the Uyghur students working out in the fields. Meryem would ultimately find out that Ali’s family got some money — probably a thousand dollars — in exchange for silence. There was no school assembly, no counseling, no acknowledgment of the death. The day had started as normal. It was to be reported as normal.
Meryem was told that another student died in the cotton fields around that time. She heard the rumors that two boys drowned when a Uyghur village was ordered to divert a river. She didn’t ask many questions. Instead, she looked to her studies, and picked cotton, two months out of every year, until she was 18 years old. Sometimes Meryem saw Ali in her dreams, but that was years ago.
When Meryem enrolled in the University of Beijing, she asked her tutor “Will we have to carry out any forced labor?” and everyone burst out laughing. It was the beginning of a great shift inside: “It made me rethink why we had to obey all these strict rules from early childhood on. I realized that they wanted to train us to be like machines, to obey without question whatever orders we received from above, to make us listen only to the Party.”
Recently Meryem’s old middle school (Onsu County No. 1) was converted into a concentration camp (Onsu No. 1 Labor Union Committee). Now a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics in Ankara, Turkey, Meryem believes that the camps are simply an extension of the “machine” principle, as if the Uyghur people had been transformed into an infinite cotton field, so high that no one can see it from the ground.
There are two kinds of people who “get out early” from the “reeducation” camps of Xinjiang, or East Turkestan as the Uyghurs refer to it. One group is in their late twenties, average age 28. Following a camp-wide medical examination and blood test, a specific tissue match with a wealthy individual looking for a new heart, lung, or liver is determined, and the camp guards will remove the targets — but quietly, in the middle of the night. As documented in reams of evidence amassed over two decades and affirmed by the China Tribunal judgment in 2020, the retail organs will be extracted to order while they are still alive. No one in the camp will refer to these detainees again.
The other group is approximately 18 years old. The official announcement that they have “graduated” is made publicly, often at lunch. Camp administrators might mention farm work, or fabric production, or that “these girls will be going to work out East at a factory.” Now it is possible that some of those girls may not return home for 25 years, when they can no longer have children. Yet they will probably survive. Perhaps that’s why the administrators occasionally encourage the camp inmates to give the girls a round of light applause.
The difference between the two groups is contained in the use of the word “graduation” — several Uyghur women described dressing up and assembling in the school hall for their high-school graduation only to see the school guards padlock the doors. Then the school administrators would cheerfully announce that all the girls had been selected to go to inner China for a year of “prearranged factory work.”
That applause means something too. The Chinese Communist Party denies the mass incarceration in camps, daily forced psychoactive medications, torture, beatings, systematic rape, forced sterilization, shaving of hair for Chinese wig exports, wraparound surveillance, the seizure of Uyghur farmland, mass deportation of Uyghurs abroad, and systematic state-controlled harvesting. But forced labor is rebranded as a jobs program, in large part because the labor part is impossible for the Party to deny. Having interviewed Uyghur and Kazakh refugees across Turkey and Central Asia for the past two years, I found that the experience was almost universal. From shoveling manure in the 1950s to cleaning iPad screens in 2022, forced labor imprints a clear message in every Uyghur: The Han Chinese consider you to be inferior.
The vast majority of witnesses cannot testify using their real names. Their family members are at risk, and Chinese agents and diplomats see to it that the witnesses’ legal status in the societies that they have fled to hangs on a thread. So, I’ll have to be extremely sensitive about the next witness. Let’s call him “Watchman.”
Watchman was in a camp of approximately 10,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs throughout 2018. He was given no rational pretext for his original detention. He doesn’t know much about the women’s camp, but the male experience with forced labor was routine — 16-hour workdays, crazed production schedules, highly paranoid Chinese guards armed with rifles, electric batons, and “gas guns” (a concentrated spray of strong pepper gas to render the target unconscious).
These were the visual sticks. Everyone knew that one’s behavior in the camp would determine not only whether you would eat that night but the duration of your time in the camp and the fate of family members. Yet something about Watchman’s slightly mocking eyes prompted me to ask whether the camp administrators also offered carrots.
The first carrot was what Watchman called “permission” — the camp authorities had the power to award you a permit to go outside of the camp for a funeral or a wedding. You had to be incredibly brave, of course, to ask for permission. And even if permission was granted, you had to go with two “friends” from the camps. Dancing was discouraged — too much unsupervised talking — but when you sat down, your friends would sit down next to you, and when you went to the buffet, they would go too. Six hours was the limit, but your friends had the license to add two extra hours provided you said nice things about the camp to anyone who asked. “But if you, or even your relatives, start crying, they will end the permission immediately.”
The second carrot was the “jobs program” salary. “You are promised 1200 RMB, 150 USD per month.” The camp directors made it official by opening up an account in each camp resident’s name at the “Rural Credit Cooperative Bank.” The accounts would accept automatic payment. In theory, one could work six months and earn nearly a thousand dollars. The camp directors even ordered debit cards for all the camp residents.
The snag was that you weren’t allowed to touch the card, much less carry it. The camp authorities showed it to you: It was black, with your name neatly embossed on the front, and a magnetic strip on the back. They kept the card for you in a safe, “for security reasons.” The other snag was that there was no physical bank, and the majority of the rural credit cooperatives were said to be technically insolvent some years ago.
Watchman had a sad, faraway look now: Perhaps the money, the value of all that labor in the fields, in the factories of China, was somehow going into a bank of some sort, maybe with the name “cooperative” in the title . . .? As if one day one of his cellmates would hold a debit card in their hand and the cash would flow out. But Watchman catches my faint smile and snaps: “You don’t dare to ever ask about the money.”
What is to be done? As industrial-sized crematoriums are constructed in Xinjiang, the survival of the Uyghur people may be at stake. Yet we aren’t going to bomb the hospitals or the camp transformers. For now, we denounce, add sanctions, threaten to withhold further Western investment, undermine the “Go West” business schemes that were so carefully constructed 20 years ago, and keep trying to fence the Party in. And maybe I have discovered an add-on. I interviewed another woman in Ankara, whom I will simply call “Peppergirl.”
Peppergirl was the flip side of the enthusiastic, competitive Meryem: diminutive, intellectual, and soft-spoken. She was also branded “a bad picker” in the Bingtuan, the Chinese army installations of Xinjiang, and was hustled off to do the worst jobs.
One week it was picking peppers. I had heard witnesses speak of picking corn and tomatoes, so I barely registered the difference until she pointed out that the peppers weren’t edible. In fact, she explained, they were kind of toxic. You had to use thick gloves to pick them, and some sort of breathing mask. She picked up a lung infection anyway.
“What were the peppers used for?”
“I don’t know. I heard maybe it had something to do with cosmetics . . .?”
I related this to a friend in American law enforcement and she sent me a recent Xinhua promotional video on the amazing contribution of Xinjiang peppers to the Chinese economy. The Party really can’t resist bragging about these things: Apparently Xinjiang peppers have a special red pigmentation, so unique that, according to Xinhua, 50 percent of the lipstick in the world is colored by an extract of the same Xinjiang peppers that Peppergirl got her lung infection from.
If that anecdote just made a Revlon executive go into a cold sweat, well, it’s only one witness, and just one video — for now, anyway. And there’s always a way to sneak Xinjiang cotton into the Western fashion supply chain, so why not peppers? Nor have the women of the free world stopped putting the collagen of executed Chinese prisoners on their face before they sleep — as Meryem might say, kind of weird. Even the legacy media got tired of running that story five years ago.
Perhaps, through some miracle, the debit card will work this time; women wearing red lipstick cannot be responsible for every drop of blood drawn with the lash, but there is a strong probability it may yet be linked to a history of child labor, exploitation, and death.