Kyrgyz men hold portraits of relatives they fear are being held in notorious "re-education camps" in China's Xinjiang region. Beijing previously denied the existence of the re-education camps, but now defends them as "vocational education and training centers." (Photo by Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP)
It's getting harder to keep a secret, as China and sportswear companies discovered heading into a new year amid mounting evidence that Beijing has dispatched thousands of incarcerated Muslims into a daily grind of forced labor as part of their "re-education" program.
Satellite images, eye-witness accounts, and goods tracked from factories to shops in the U.S. have made it impossible for the communist state to hide the camps and now unethical labor practices, reminiscent of the gulags of old.
At the heart of this issue is about 1.1 million Uyghurs interned by China for what it insists is a government-led campaign to stamp out terrorists but the reality smacks of laojiao, the brutal labor camps that emerged under Mao Zedong and not abolished until late 2013.
Almost three years ago Chinese authorities told the world they would end restrictive measures on Muslim Uyghurs, as officials launched into the "year of ethnic unity."
Beijing's word, however, has proved about as trustworthy as the labor contracts nine Uyghur women were ordered to sign after being interned last year.
At the Yining County Textile Industrial Park they would receive about 40 percent of the average wage of a manual worker or 600 yuan a month, almost US$92, a pitiful amount.
Even then, Kazakh Muslims told Radio Free Asia they would only get half of that while working 12-hour days and attending political study classes after each shift, where indoctrination by the state has little time for the traditions of Islam.
The women refused and were sent back to the heavily guarded camps.
Other reports include already highly trained people interned and made to re-train in menial work while undertaking political re-education, like the Uyghur dentist who was taught to operate a sewing machine after being sentenced to three years labor late last year.
These are not isolated cases and the online world has been inundated with reports of stand-over tactics and Muslims being forced to renounce their beliefs and not complain.
Another dispatch claimed just one factory had about 2,000 workers from internment camps under its roof.
Initially, Beijing denied the internment camps even existed, relenting only under international pressure and at the same time deploying the official media that did its best to convince the critics that it was all about rehabilitating extremists blamed for fueling separatist violence in Xinjiang.
It has since herded 11.5 percent of the entire Uyghur population in Xinjiang into what it now calls "vocational training centers," designed to provide employment opportunities for the poor in the country's impoverished west. Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities have been interned alongside them.
Predictably its response to claims that camps in Kashgar were being used to provide low-cost forced labor for factories producing everything from sportswear and leather gloves to cement and noodles was terse.
Government spokesperson Hua Chunying ignored the evidence and said the story, initially broken by the Associated Press in late December, was "completely based on hearsay evidence or made out of thin air" and was a "malicious attack that severely distorts the fact."
This file photo taken on Feb. 27, 2017 shows Chinese military police in Hetian, northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. (Photo by AFP)
Among those named in the reports is the privately-owned Hetian Taida Apparel that operates 10 workshops inside a camp, shipping its T-shirts and other apparel to Badger Sportswear in North Carolina for distribution and sale on university campuses.
Hetian Taida chairman Wu Hongbo has rejected speculation he is affiliated with the "vocational centers" but admitted on China Central television that his factories had used labor provided from the camps by the authorities, and at least one factory operated inside an internment camp.
Big brands have become adept at fending off attacks mounted by critics upset by poor labor practices in developing countries that ensure the manufacture of apparel at the lowest possible costs, by outsourcing production to obscure local companies and with it the blame.
But products made in sweat shops are not the same as those made through forced labor, which is illegal and in breach of United Nations covenants covering economic, social, cultural and human rights. In the U.S., the chief executive officer of Badger Sportswear, John Anton, announced all ties with Hetian Taida had been cut, nor would his company source any more products from Xinjiang.
It's a necessary step in the right direction for what amounts to a gross violation of human dignity and international law, concepts Beijing has paid barely scant regard to in recent years.
Antecedents of genocide
The "year of ethnic unity" was a dreadful hoax that masqueraded the secret construction of penal colonies across China's far west. Particularly disturbing was the thought of Chinese entrepreneurs lining-up for cheap, often free, enforced labor to meet production quotas and maximize profits.
Equally disturbing is China's trail of broken promises, a tale that people in Hong Kong know all too well, where belligerence and a failure to live-up to principals and the Basic Law struck with Britain before the handover in 1997 is prompting people to leave what was once a great international city.
Hardliners in Beijing have also jeopardized regional peace and stability with their erroneous maritime claims in the South China Sea and debt traps across Asia and Africa where development, investment and lending are now euphemisms for empire building, bankruptcies and asset seizures.
Uyghur leaders have already warned that Beijing's policies could be "precursors to a genocide" and given what has already happened to the Rohingya in Myanmar and the recent genocide convictions of Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia, such talk is not without merit.
Genocide is a well-trodden and tragic path. As the sign above the gate from another forced labor camp — Auschwitz in Nazi occupied Poland — says: "Work Makes You Free".
Luke Hunt is an opinion writer with ucanews.com.