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Chinese businessman Zeng Yifa must be proud of his accomplishments.
His factories in China produce clothing for western sports and fashion brands.
Zeng poses by a rack of winter jackets in a Chinese news story (siirryt toiseen palveluun) discussing a factory he established in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang.
The logo of Finnish children’s clothing brand Reima shimmers on the sleeve of a pink puffy jacket in the accompanying image.
The story details how Zeng’s company Haoyuanpeng has helped provide jobs for Uighurs, a Muslim minority group based primarily in the Xinjiang region.
The story sounds positive, but many international researchers say there is more to these types of employment arrangements than meets the eye.
Chinese news stories and official documents reveal that Zeng’s company has participated in a state-sponsored system in China that researchers say conscripts the country’s Muslim minority Uighurs into forced labour.
This story traces possible connections between companies operating in Finland and Uighur forced labour.
In this investigation, Yle examined the Chinese subcontractors of Finnish clothing companies and major retail chains operating in Finland. These factories produce merchandise including clothes, textiles and shoes. The study researched some 30 companies, 11 of which provided detailed subcontractor information.
We checked if these Chinese subcontractors were active in Xinjiang and looked for signs that researchers say are indicative of Uighur forced labour. We also looked for clues pointing to forced labour in companies operating elsewhere in China.
In addition to Reima, Yle’s investigation found that German supermarket giant Lidl lists Chinese firms as its subcontractors that are at high risk of being involved in forced labour.
A former subcontractor of Stockmann’s fashion chain Lindex also has links to Xinjiang. It has cooperated with a company participating in the transfer of Uighur labour, a practice forcibly moving Uighurs far from their homes.
The original article in Finnish was published on Yle’s news site on June 6, 2021: Yle jäljitti tuttujen ketjujen yhteyksiä uiguurien sortoon Kiinassa – Reiman takki on kuvattu pakkotyöhön liitetyssä yrityksessä, Lidlin toppahousuja on tehty Xinjiangissa
FINNISH CLOTHING COMPANY Reima has in recent years actively grown its sales outside of Finland. Today most of its turnover comes from other European countries, Russia, North America and Asia. Reima also sells kids’ outdoor wear in China, where it is somewhat recognised as a quality brand.
Reima produces the majority of its products in China. One of its manufacturers there is Haoyuanpeng which operates multiple factories in the country. This is the same company whose CEO posed by the pink jacket. Haoyuanpeng is listed as a subcontractor on Reima’s webpage.
Haoyuanpeng has meanwhile displayed Reima’s logo on its website to showcase its foreign customers. In early 2020 that page still prominently featured the logos of Nike and Adidas in addition to Reima’s.
But shortly after that Haoyuanpeng was cast in a bad light.
In a report (siirryt toiseen palveluun) by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the company was linked to Uighur forced labour – abusive minority treatment the world is increasingly paying attention to.
Haoyuanpeng’s website no longer mentions any cooperation with famous brands. Adidas and Nike have denied any relationship with the company.
Reima told Yle it had been unaware of any information linking Haoyuanpeng to forced labour.
"We take these claims seriously as we are committed to respecting human rights, and we don’t tolerate any form of forced labour," Reima communications manager Riikamaria Paakkunainen says.
According to Paakkunainen, Reima has not had products manufactured at Haoyuanpeng’s factory in Xinjiang. She said the jacket in the photo is from Reima’s spring 2015 collection and was produced by another one of Haoyuanpeng’s factories in eastern China.
Supermarket chain Lidl has also named Haoyuanpeng as its subcontractor. Its factory in Xinjiang was still listed on Lidl Finland's website in March of this year.
Today Lidl’s subcontractor listing no longer mentions Haoyuanpeng. But it does identify two other companies operating in Xinjiang.
Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz told Yle there is a high risk that clothing companies operating in the region benefit from forced Uighur labour.
While Lidl confirmed that it has sold Xinjiang-produced products in Finland, the company didn’t say whether it had been aware of the risk of forced labour associated with its subcontractors in Xinjiang.
"We take information about our suppliers very seriously," says Lidl sustainability specialist Laura Kvissberg.
Like Reima, Lidl also says it does not tolerate any forced labour in its supply chain. Lidl maintains that it is aware of human rights risks associated with long supply chains, and it says it strives to minimise this risk by vetting suppliers in risk countries.
FORCED LABOUR IS AN ESSENTIAL part of the system that China uses to control Uighurs. In recent years China has tightened its policies regarding Xinjiang.
The Communist Party has oppressed Uighurs living in Xinjiang province for years. China has detained more than a million Uighurs in so-called "re-education centres," which researchers say are in fact internment camps.
Uighurs can get sent to detention camps for having travelled abroad or installing WhatsApp.
Members of this minority are forced to renounce Islam and subjected to political indoctrination by China’s ruling Communist Party. Those who have left camps say women are subjected to compulsory sterilisation and sexual abuse, including rape (siirryt toiseen palveluun). Authorities use facial recognition software to monitor Xinjiang residents’ every move.
The Communist Party believes that its transfer schemes to disperse Uighur communities will combat Islamist separatism that could potentially threaten the party’s dominance. When Uighurs leave their families and culture behind, they shed their identity and enforce their allegiance to the state.
Forced factory work is a key part of the system.
Researchers say that when western companies buy products from China, it is increasingly likely they are becoming entangled with this system.
BUT INTERNATIONAL EXPERTS and monitors don’t agree.
They say Uighurs interned at camps work at factories in Xinjiang. In addition, authorities are running wide-scale and systematic labour transfer programmes that recruit rural Uighurs into factory jobs.
In 2018, for instance, the Chinese government introduced a scheme (siirryt toiseen palveluun) to move more than 200,000 people from their homes in southern Xinjiang’s impoverished areas.
People in Xinjiang know that disobeying authorities can mean becoming detained in a camp. Family members may also face consequences.
Being left with no choice fulfills the definition of forced labour, according to international conventions.
Researchers say that a Chinese company manufacturing textiles in Xinjiang should raise alarm bells.
"By participating and having Xinjiang in your supply chain, you are in some way supporting a state-sponsored atrocity," researcher Adrian Zenz told Yle.
Zenz is an internationally recognised expert on the mass detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in re-education camps in Xinjiang. He is a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a US-based nonprofit organisation.
His work (siirryt toiseen palveluun) on China’s coercive labour policies has made international headlines.
Beijing has hit back at Zenz by black-listing him. Chinese state media wages campaigns to damage his credibility.
In addition to other (siirryt toiseen palveluun) international researchers (siirryt toiseen palveluun), human rights groups Amnesty International (siirryt toiseen palveluun) and Human Rights Watch (siirryt toiseen palveluun) have also reported extensively on human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
PROVING FORCED UIGHUR LABOUR in a specific factory is difficult.
Chinese authorities block free movement in Xinjiang, making it impossible for journalists to obtain any evidence or conduct meaningful interviews. Foreign companies are meanwhile unable to carry out proper factory audits.
But even if western monitors were able to inspect factories, forced labour is not always apparent. A factory may seem like an ordinary manufacturing facility even if it is a detention centre. Workers may receive pay.
But there are other ways of looking into the system.
Zenz and other foreign researchers have discovered government documents, studies and news stories online describing the transfer of Uighurs into factories. People who have fled from China after leaving camps have also shared their experiences.
China’s labour transfer policy is not a secret in the country. Chinese media has written extensively about it. Employing Uighurs and developing Xinjiang are perceived as positive policies.
We searched for online footprints that would possibly link the Chinese subcontractors of Finnish companies to forced labour. Researchers say certain keywords point to the risk of forced labour involving minority Uighurs.
Suspicions should arise if a Chinese company participates in a government scheme known as "Xinjiang Aid" or "poverty alleviation." This is according to sources such as researcher Adrian Zenz and the US-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has also reported that Uighur workers’ participation in these programmes is rarely voluntary.
Yle’s investigation found Xinjiang connections among three companies included in the search. This does, however, not rule out the possibility that other Finnish companies or Finland-based firms have links to Chinese entities involved in Uighur forced labour.
Firms are often tight-lipped when it comes to their Chinese business partners or subcontractors. Some companies do not reveal anything about their supply chains, further complicating any efforts to identify possible links to forced labour.
UNLIKE MANY OTHER COMPANIES, German retail giant Lidl openly says it buys products manufactured in Xinjiang.
Lidl Finland’s list of shoe and textile subcontractors includes two Chinese companies located in an industrial park in Xinjiang. Lidl just recently added one of these companies to its subcontractor list in March of this year.
These companies are listed as suppliers for Lidl stores in many other European countries, including Germany, France, UK, Italy, Sweden and Denmark.
In March of 2021 Lidl Finland’s list included yet another factory in Xinjiang. This factory is owned by Haoyuanpeng, which we learned earlier in this story was connected to Finnish clothing company Reima.
Lidl is the largest retail chain in Europe. It’s sourcing decisions in China have a major impact.
The discount grocer is increasingly profiling itself as a clothing store. Social media influencers rave about Lid’s inexpensive sneakers, sandals, swimsuits and cashmere sweaters.
The fact that Lidl’s subcontractors are housed in a Xinjiang industrial park raises forced labour suspicions.
Adrian Zenz says factories in these special industrial complexes carry the greatest risk of forced labour.
"The risk is very high because that is one of the primary means in which Uighurs are coerced to work," he explains.
Foreign researchers have mapped so-called re-education camps—detention centres—near industrial parks. These factory complexes employ Uighurs whom authorities deem to have "graduated" from "vocational training."
China also funnels labour from other parts of Xinjiang into these industrial complexes. Poor rural villagers, so-called "surplus labour," also arrive at these centres. They are also often unable to refuse work. Factories function under military-style management and managers there closely monitor workers.
The English-language names of Lidl’s current subcontractors in Xinjiang are Kashi Rising Garment and Xinjiang Lawson Clothing. The latter was established in 2019 and little information about it is available on Chinese sites.
Kashi Rising Garment is meanwhile mentioned in Chinese online news stories and documents. The company has participated in the type of state-sponsored programme researchers say is potentially indicative of forced labour.
The company is one of several firms included in a 2019 list (siirryt toiseen palveluun) compiled by officials of regional actors working toward "poverty alleviation."
Lidl’s subcontractors operate in an industrial park in Kashgar which employs formerly detained Uighurs and other transferred rural labour. This is according to a Chinese news story (siirryt toiseen palveluun) detailing how people have been moved from a re-education camp to the complex.
Yle was unable to confirm whether former or current detainees specifically worked in these Lidl subcontractor facilities.
Cover-ups and disinformation make it nearly impossible for foreign companies to realistically determine who works for their subcontractors and how this labour was recruited.
Lidl told Yle it has sold products in Finland produced at Kashi Rising Garment’s facility. Lidl has sold adults’ puffy coats and trousers in Finland manufactured by the company in 2019. In 2020, Lidl sold adults’ lightweight jackets manufactured by Kashi Rising Garment.
After hearing what Yle had learned about this particular subcontractor, Lidl said it would for the time being not place any orders with the factory.
"For now we are not ordering any products from this production facility," says Lidl sustainability specialist Laura Kvissberg.
IN EARLY 2021, Lid Finland still listed another subcontractor in Xinjiang.
That subcontractor was Haoyuanpeng, the same manufacturer Reima has used as a supplier in eastern China.
Haoyuanpeng expanded its operations in Xinjiang in 2018 by building a factory in an industrial park there. The company surfaced in Chinese news stories and has been lauded for participating in a "Xinjiang aid" programme.
In this scheme, the central government links wealthy cities in eastern and southern regions with poor areas in Xinjiang. Authorities offer financial incentives to companies opening factories in Xinjiang.
Any mention of "Xinjiang aid" is an alarm bell companies ordering products from China should recognise, according to researchers.
"Anything connected to Xinjiang, any company with production in it or a part of the Xinjiang aid scheme, the safest way, if you cannot do a proper audit into the entire supply chain, is to withdraw and to terminate any relationship really," Zenz explains.
Lidl Finland told Yle it had not sourced any products from Haoyuanpeng, despite the subcontractor’s name having been listed as a supplier on Lidl Finland's website this year. Lidl also says it has not sold goods from Xinjiang Lawson Clothing, listed on the site this spring, in Finland.
Lidl Finland says it does not know which country outlets sell or have sold Haoyuanpeng’s and Xinjiang Lawson Clothing’s products.
But forced labour isn’t exclusive to Xinjiang. Uighurs and other minorities from this region also risk being forcibly transferred into factories in East China.
These factories also manufacture products destined for European countries, including Finland.
HAOYUANPENG IS HEADQUARTERED in East China’s Anhui province, where the company runs several factories. One of these factories used to manufacture down clothing, such as jackets, for the Finnish clothing firm Reima.
One of Haoyuanpeng’s Anhui factories received a batch of Uighur workers from Xinjiang in 2018, according to information (siirryt toiseen palveluun) the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) found online.
According to the Chinese government report, officials initially transferred 63 people to a Haoyuanpeng factory in Anhui, with plans to move 500 people in total.
Yle was unable to confirm whether Uighurs specifically work in the Anhui factory that has produced garments for Reima.
Following the publication of this news article in Finnish on June 6, Reima announced that it was terminating its cooperation with Haoyuanpeng.
"We have zero tolerance for human rights violations, and in light of the allegations that have arisen, there is a risk that not all of our requirements will be met in the operations of the Haoyuanpeng Group," Reima communications manager Riikamaria Paakkunainen says.
The Finnish clothing company maintains that the Haoyuanpeng factory it used did not show signs of forced labour, nor did it employ any workers from Xinjiang.
Reima says it had requested that the Haoyuanpeng factory it used in Anhui provide a detailed list of any cross-provincial labour. Inspections were performed at the factory and these audits included interviews with randomly selected employees, according to Reima.
Xinjiang experts, however, point out that when it comes to Uighurs, labour inspections are not credible. Most workers are afraid to talk about their circumstances, even in a confidential setting.
Researcher Adrian Zenz says there is a high risk that Haoyuanpeng is involved in forced labour.
"We are talking about a high risk, because a company like Haoyuanpeng has production in Xinjiang and has the labour transfer of Uighurs to their factories in eastern China."
THIS EXAMPLE ILLUSTRATES how Uighur oppression can extend to Chinese companies that Finnish firms’ supplier lists suggest are unrelated to Xinjiang.
Ultimately, all of Haoyuanpeng’s factories are a part of the same corporate ecosystem profiting from possible forced labour.
Chinese companies may also intentionally conceal a product’s origin. US think-tank CSIS (siirryt toiseen palveluun) says firms may, for example, ship products manufactured in Xinjiang from a different address.
CSIS says it is difficult for foreign companies to detect forced labour if they only look at individual subcontractors. Companies need to study the entire corporate group to gain a better understanding of the situation.
But why do Chinese companies go through the trouble of moving labour across the country?
Labour transfers provide cheap workers for companies. Bringing labour into East China helps alleviate workers shortages in affluent provinces where factory work is becoming less appealing to the region’s 20- and 30-year-olds.
A company in East China may also bring Uighurs into its factories for training purposes. It may then later transfer them back to Xinjiang when they set up production in the region.
THE TRANSFER OF UIGHURS into factory work within Xinjiang or other parts of China is not a new phenomenon.
China has been trying to develop its western border frontiers like Xinjiang and Tibet for years. They are economically important regions. Xinjiang is rich in coal and natural gas and is seen by Beijing as an important western trade link.
In the past few years, China has tightened its grip on Xinjiang. Its policies hardened after the country’s 2013 and 2014 domestic terrorist attacks for which China blamed Xinjiang separatists.
When the mass corralling of Uighurs into detention centers began in 2017, the labour transfer system also became increasingly coercive, according to Zenz and many other researchers.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Zenz estimate that China moved more than 70,000 Uighurs from Xinjiang to work in other parts of the country between 2017 and 2019.
Zenz says labour transfers are a method for assimilating the Uighurs into the majority population.
"Some Chinese government and other research documents directly say that. [Labour transfer schemes] are a way to reduce Uighur population density, to mix them up more with other ethnic groups in order to assimilate them," he explains.
This is exactly what a report by China’s Nankai University (siirryt toiseen palveluun) said. The report was later taken down.
Political indoctrination and Mandarin training are also integral to China’s labour transfer policies. Uighurs make declarations of loyal citizenship and participate in military drills.
Workers at Haoyuanpeng, Lidl Finland's and Reima’s former subcontractor, have also undergone "patriotic education."
This 2019 news story (siirryt toiseen palveluun) recounts how workers at Haoyuanpeng’s Xinjiang factory have studied the region’s history and anti-terrorism efforts. Some 4,500 people, including workers from other factories, have participated in the training.
One of the interviewed workers says the training helped them understand to be "good citizens" and not believe "lies told by others."
THE VIDEO ABOVE is a 2017 Chinese state media report (siirryt toiseen palveluun) about labour transfer.
It explains how villagers in Xinjiang are recruited to work in factories. The BBC (siirryt toiseen palveluun) picked the video up in its news coverage this spring.
The video shows Communist Party recruiters persuading a 19-year-old woman to leave her family to work in a factory in East China’s Anhui province. They tell her that, if she stays, she will be married soon and never be able to leave.
The young woman resists, but finally gives in under the intense scrutiny of the government officials and rolling camera of state television reporters.
China and its state-run media like to portray Uighurs as voluntarily leaving their villages to work in factories.
Some probably do. Working in a factory provides the possibility to earn more money.
Adrian Zenz says joining factories is sometimes a way to escape internment, which is why people sometimes do it.
Zenz says coercion is especially a feature of the recruitment process. He says government reports he has found describe how authorities seek to "collectively mobilise the entire village."
One of these reports detailed how government recruiters move from home to home to perform "thought work" until farmers become convinced to change their way of life and work in factories.
The government places children and elderly relatives of transferred Uighurs into government-mandated centralized care. The state urges families to leave any fields and cattle into its care.
Zenz says it’s unlikely that these types of drastic lifestyle changes are voluntary.
"We know that these recruitments often take place by the same work teams that also identify if people should be put in an internment camp," he explains.
IN HIS RESEARCH, ZENZ describes a particularly coercive labour transfer programme. One of the factories in that programme is, according to Yle’s investigation, connected to fashion chain Lindex’s former subcontractor in China.
Lindex, which is owned by Finnish department store Stockmann, cannot be directly linked to the factory. This case, however, illustrates the difficulty outsiders face in scrutinising the structure and partnerships of large Chinese companies.
Finnish companies work with many large Chinese corporations active in numerous sectors. Moreover a Chinese company may be connected to forced labour through one of its partners.
This is Lindex’s case.
In January of this year Lindex still listed a subcontractor called Hangzhou Fulida. On its website (siirryt toiseen palveluun) Fulida Group says it has had a close relationship with a certain Chinese state company. Fulida sold its factory in Xinjiang to this state entity in 2016.
The following year this factory participated in the labour transfer programme described by Zenz. The programme had strict recruitment quotas and militarized vocational training.
The scheme intended to transfer a total of 100,000 people from areas in Kashgar and Hotan to factories elsewhere in Xinjiang.
News stories (siirryt toiseen palveluun) describe how hundreds of villagers were moved to the factory.
Although Fulida Group sold its factory to a new owner, it later claimed to still cooperate with this company and invest in Xinjiang, saying its goal is to "continue contributing to local employment."
Yle asked Lindex if it was aware of its former subcontractor’s Xinjiang connections and whether it considers the issue problematic.
Lindex did not provide a direct answer. It said it had a zero tolerance policy toward forced labour anywhere in its supply chain.
"We continuously perform due diligence on our global supply chain and mitigate risks connected to human rights violations," Lindex communications manager Kristina Hermansson says.
The same Chinese state company linked to Lindex’s former subcontractor made headlines in Finland earlier this year.
Media reports identified this company as a client of Finnish-Swedish forest company Stora Enso.
The company’s name is Zhongtai Chemical. In March, the South China Morning Post (siirryt toiseen palveluun) (SCMP) reported that Stora Enso’s Finnish factory had supplied chemical pulp to this company’s viscose factory in Xinjiang.
The paper reported that Uighur "re-education" camps are located near Zhongtai Chemical’s factories.
In the SCMP story, Stora Enso said its representatives had frequently visited the factories and had not witnessed any signs of forced labour.
After the article was published, Stora Enso announced it was "moving away from the global soluble pulp segment for viscose production."
CHINA IS STILL THE WORLD'S factory. Its massive exports to Finland extend far beyond the clothes and shoes examined in this story.
Many western companies have said they refuse to buy Xinjiang cotton or products made in the region.
Lidl Finland did not provide a direct answer as to whether it will order products from Xinjiang in the future. It says it has stopped orders from one factory in the region.
Following the publication of this article in Finnish, sustainability specialist Laura Kvissberg said Lidl was monitoring the situation very closely and would first follow up on any ambiguity with its suppliers.
Reima told Yle it does not source raw material from or manufacture products in the Xinjiang region. Lindex, however, did not respond to Yle’s question on whether it will order products from Xinjiang in the future.
But even when companies boycott Xinjiang products, they cannot be fully certain they are avoiding forced labour in their production chains, according to researchers.
Tracing the cotton, for example, in a t-shirt to its origin is extremely difficult.
Xinjiang is the leading producer of cotton in China. By some estimates, it accounts for 87 percent of the country’s domestic cotton production.
That said, cotton, viscose and other textiles – as well as other products – from Xinjiang can be processed elsewhere in China.
China also exports materials to other countries in Asia. This means material from Xinjiang can be included in products made in Cambodia, for example.
Xinjiang expert Adrian Zenz says he hopes European countries will quickly pass new supply chain laws compelling companies to audit their entire production chains. In this system, any companies perpetrating human rights abuses would face consequences for violations.
Zenz says individual companies should also take a more active role and do their own research. This would help them form a better understanding of the scale of forced labour.
"In 2021 there is no excuse for a western company to not know what is going on in Xinjiang and what the risks are."
The subcontractor lists of Lidl, Lindex and Reima are available here:
Image sources not separately identified in the story:
Shopping centre in Shanghai. Image: Hector Retamal / AFP
High street in Beijing showing H&M. Image: Roman Pilipey / EPA
Image of Haoyuanpeng’s factories captured from the company’s website (siirryt toiseen palveluun).
A woman wearing a respiratory mask working at a factory in Ürümqi, Xinjiang. Image: AOP