In New York, federal authorities seized a shipment of human hair weaves suspected to be taken from and created by Uyghur women detained in a Chinese internment camp. The seizure is related to a rare sanction placed by the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on May 1 on hair products from Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories after they were linked to forced labor.
Sanctions like this, while rarely issued, are used to hold shipping containers in the U.S. ports of entry until the CBP can investigate claims of wrongdoing. But now, the CBP has issued a detention order on shipments of hair weaves from China for the second time this year.
Today, 13 tons of hair products, estimated to be worth $800,000, were in a requisitioned shipment from Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. Ltd., reports The Associated Press. The hair was allegedly taken forcibly at the internment camp populated by Uyghur women, who typically have long hair as part of their culture. Two companies sold hair that was suspected to be both taken from inmates and created by forced labor.
“The production of these goods constitutes a very serious human rights violation, and the detention order is intended to send a clear and direct message to all entities seeking to do business with the United States that illicit and inhumane practices will not be tolerated in U.S. supply chains,” Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade said in a statement.
According to an investigation conducted by Radio Free Asia, it appears that several companies in the area operate with similar business models that are allegedly linked to internment camps. Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories, located in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), is registered in an industrial park in Hotan prefecture’s Lop county, the same location as a known internment camp. Both Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. Ltd. and Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories export from China’s far west Xinjiang region where the Chinese government has detained an estimated 1 million or more ethnic Turkic minorities over the past four years.
These inmates are held in internment camps and prisons where they are forced to denounce their religion, language, and culture. Often, they are subjected to physical abuse. One such minority group is the Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim. China has long suspected the group of having separatist tendencies, reports The Seattle Times.
But the Chinese Ministry of Affairs denies the use of any forced labor or detention of ethnic minority groups. “We hope that certain people in the United States can take off their tinted glasses, correctly understand and objectively and rationally view normal economic and trade cooperation between Chinese and American enterprises,” reads a statement released by the ministry.
China exports around $6 billion worth of hair products each year. According to the Statista website, the U.S. represents around 42 percent of China’s total exports, the largest of any country, accounting for about $3.15 billion of those products.
The human rights violation is especially horrifying when you consider that women leave their hair long in accordance with Uyghur cultural traditions. With no recorded history of people selling their hair in the region, suspicions are high as to whether raw hair may be coming from detainees in the XUAR’s network of internment camps. Women formally held in these camps spoke with RFA and described having their heads shaved immediately upon entering the detention facilities. They could not account for what happened to their hair after it was shaved off.
In an interview with Radio Free China, Chinese human rights lawyer and activist Teng Biao said that shaving the heads of people held in Chinese prisons and detention centers is a regulation practice, suggesting that local authorities likely profit from it. “There are no rules about how to deal with the hair of people in prisons – it’s very difficult to supervise or place restrictions from above on how to deal with hair that has been forcibly removed,” said Biao. “As a result, this has also created an environment in which [officials] are not going to turn down the economic benefits of hair that has been shaved off of people in government camps.”
Numerous reports from the AP found that people held in these internment camps and prisons, referred to as “black factories” by activists, are making sportswear and other apparel for popular U.S. brands. Former detainees in other parts of the Xinjiang region describe being shuttled to work in guarded compounds during the day before being taken back to internment camps at night.
In December, Xinjiang Daily, the official publication of the Communist Party of China, published an article entitled “Listen to the Graduates of Education Centers.” In it, “graduates” from camps were shown on assignment to work at factories near their homes. One such factory is in the Lop industrial park near where both Meixin Hair Product Co. Ltd. and Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories are reportedly registered.
The article quoted Uyghur people who were sent to work in factories after time spent in a camp. “It’s possible that I would have gone even further down the wrong path,” read one such quote from a man named Memetjan Mettohti who is said to have spent a year in a camp before being sent to work in a factory in December 2018. “It saved me and gave me a new life.”
Uyghur exile groups welcomed the United States’ decision to sanction and seize weaves coming from China and encouraged other countries to take similar steps in addressing imported goods made with forced labor from factories increasingly linked to the network of internment camps.