China Uses Global Influence Campaign To Deny Forced Labor, Mass Incarceration in Xinjiang

A landmark investigation from The Washington Post has added further evidence to allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang’s solar industry. The systemic use of forced labor in Xinjiang is part of a sweeping government campaign targeted at Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities that has also used mass incarceration and forced sterilization to both “Sinicize” and “proletarianize” the region’s Muslim population. At The Washington Post, Lily Kuo, Pei Lin Wu, and Jeanne Whalen conducted an investigation into Hoshine Silicon, a major solar energy manufacturer that allegedly uses forced Uyghur labor:

According to company reports, local propaganda and other public documents, Hoshine Silicon, also known as Hesheng, recruits and employs Uyghurs and other minorities via state labor programs that aim to place them in factories. Researchers say these programs are a form of forced labor for residents who, faced with the threat of detention or other punishment, cannot refuse.

[…] In April 2020, Hoshine hired workers in Makit county, a Uyghur-majority district, who would be given “patriotism training” and “political assessments.” Recruits received copies of the essential points of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era,” according to an article by an XPCC-run development zone in Shihezi in northern Xinjiang, where Hoshine operates one of its plants.

[…] In another report from September 2019, officials were described as “relieving” a couple in Dikan of their seven acres of grape fields. The couple were given jobs at Hoshine, about 30 miles away, as a mechanic and product inspector, according to the state-run Xinjiang Broadcasting Station.

Former residents said refusing these jobs was not an option, given the threat of detention. “You don’t have a choice. You must go,” said Abdulla Yunus, a Uyghur from Piqan who now lives overseas. [Source]

In response to the above investigation and others, the United States government has moved to ban imports sourced from Hoshine Silicon, as well as a number of other Xinjiang solar product manufacturers. At The New York Times, Thomas Kaplan, Chris Buckley and Brad Plumer detailed the measures the United States government has taken against Hoshine, and other solar companies in Xinjiang:

In one of the newly announced actions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection banned imports of silica-based products made by Hoshine Silicon Industry Company as well as goods made using those products. The agency “has information reasonably indicating that Hoshine uses forced labor to produce its silica-based products,” Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said at a news conference.

[…] China is the dominant global producer of polysilicon, a raw material that most solar panels use to absorb energy from sunlight, and Xinjiang has over the past decade risen as the country’s main production base for the material. Xinjiang makes about 45 percent of the world’s polysilicon, according to InfoLink, a renewable energy research company.

The import ban focuses on one company and not all polysilicon products from Xinjiang, but it could roil the market for solar panels in the United States. Hoshine and its subsidiaries supply at least some metallurgical-grade silicon to the world’s eight largest polysilicon producers, which together account for 90 percent of the global market, according to Johannes Bernreuter, a polysilicon market analyst at Bernreuter Research. [Source]

A White House statement said, “These actions demonstrate our commitment to imposing additional costs on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for engaging in cruel and inhumane forced labor practices.” Xinjiang’s cotton and tomato industries have also been tainted by credible accusations of forced labor. Many international businesses use labor auditors to check working conditions within their supply chains, but that practice is nearly impossible in Xinjiang, where auditors are subject to arrest for merely doing their jobs. A new report from Axios alleges that “In April, at least seven people in China who work in partnership with Verité [a global supply-chain audit company] were interrogated by Chinese authorities for several days.”

Businesses that have stopped using Xinjiang cotton over forced labor concerns have been mobbed by nationalists online—H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry, and Uniqlo were all targeted this March. At The Wall Street Journal, Stu Woo, Suzanne Kapner and Brian Whitton reported on a major apparel maker’s decision to take a stand against forced labor in Xinjiang… and then abandon it, until reaffirming the original decision 24 hours later:

In late March, the maker of North Face jackets and Vans sneakers quietly took down a statement raising concern about allegations of forced labor in China’s cotton-rich Xinjiang region. Rival fashion company H&M had just been erased from China’s internet for a similar statement.

Three other big apparel companies also pulled or altered statements critical of Xinjiang from their websites in the days that followed the boycott of H&M, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. At Denver-based VF Corp., though, executives quickly convened to deliberate over what they felt was the right thing to do, according to a person familiar with the matter. Twenty-four hours after pulling its statement, the company posted a new, shorter statement reaffirming its stance.

[…] A week later, Sean Cady, a VF executive overseeing the company’s responsibility initiatives, sent an email to a nonprofit labor-rights monitoring group called the Worker Rights Consortium. In the email, Mr. Cady said VF “temporarily” removed its Xinjiang statement “out of an abundance of caution” but publicly reaffirmed its position within 24 hours. The email, which was circulated among advocacy groups and shared online by one of them, said VF is maintaining its nearly two-year-old position of not sourcing any products or materials from Xinjiang. [Source]

Nationalist outbursts are, at least in part, an effort to shape global discourse around Xinjiang by browbeating companies into silence. But the Chinese government’s efforts to shape global public opinion do not stop at economic coercion. A detailed visual investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times has revealed an elaborate global campaign to enlist Uyghurs to make propaganda videos “dispelling” rumors of forced labor in Xinjiang. From Jeff Kao, Raymond Zhong, Paul Mozur, Aliza Aufrichtig, Nailah Morgan, and Aaron Krolik of ProPublica and The New York Times:

The operation has produced and spread thousands of videos in which Chinese citizens deny abuses against their own communities and scold foreign officials and multinational corporations who dare question the Chinese government’s human rights record in Xinjiang.

[…] Many of these videos of people in Xinjiang first appeared on a regional Communist Party news app. Then they showed up on YouTube and other global sites, with English subtitles added. (The excerpts of dialogue in this article are translated from the original spoken Chinese or Uyghur by The Times and ProPublica. They are not taken from the English subtitles in the original videos.)

[…] The warehouse accounts on YouTube have attracted more than 480,000 views in total. People on YouTube, TikTok and other platforms — users with no apparent connection to the influence campaign — have cited the testimonials to argue that all is well in Xinjiang. Their videos have received hundreds of thousands of additional views.

[…] “Some people will believe these videos and believe Uyghurs are living a happy life,” [Rebiya Kadeer, 74,] said. “We can’t say they have locked up everyone. But what they’re saying in these videos — it’s not true. They know they’re not speaking the truth. But they have to say what the Chinese government wants them to say.” [Source]

Tweet threads by two of the report’s primary authors provide striking visual evidence of the level of coordination behind the campaign:

Massive Twitter bot networks boost the message:

Forced labor is just one aspect of repression in Xinjiang. At CNN, Rebecca Wright, Ivan Watson, and Ben Westcott reported on the region’s extremely high rate of long-term sentences, which experts believe is indicative of an ethnicity-based crackdown:

According to Xinjiang’s statistical yearbooks, 87% of all sentences in 2017 were for more than five years, up from 27% in 2016. Rights groups say that sharp rise in the length of prison terms suggests the Chinese government’s crackdown in the region is becoming more extreme.

[…] Information from the Xinjiang Victims Database, a nongovernmental organization that has documented more than 8,000 Uyghur cases, suggests the pattern of high sentencing rates continued until at least 2020, HRW said.

[…] “When it comes to people who are ethnic minorities, I think it is highly likely that many of the people there shouldn’t be imprisoned,” said [Human Rights Watch China researcher Maya Wang]. “If you look at the verdicts that are available it does show that … they are being punished for behavior that does not constitute crimes.” [Source]

A population “optimization” drive in Xinjiang has subjected Uyghur women to harsh, at times nonconsensual, birth-control measures. The Economist’s Chaguan column provided further detail on the campaign:

Three places were visited. Bachu, a county of cotton fields and fruit farms, is almost wholly Uyghur. Like many majority-Muslim areas in southern Xinjiang, it saw high birth rates not long ago. The county government reported a natural population growth rate in 2014 of almost 13 per thousand people. Using mortality rates for the surrounding prefecture, Kashgar, that figure equates to a birth rate of nearly 19 per thousand people. That is compatible with the average woman having perhaps three or four children during her reproductive years. Rural Uyghurs were allowed three children back then, and officials tolerated extra births to buy social peace.

[…] Those same cheerful crowds alarm Chinese scholars. They write of young Uyghur populations exhausting southern Xinjiang’s water supplies, straining job markets and threatening stability in a border region. In 2017 Communist Party leaders ordered a campaign against illegal births, including cash rewards for locals who reported over-quota children. But legal births were also targeted. In January 2018 Bachu’s government boasted of controlling the population’s “excessive growth”. By 2017 the county’s birth rate had fallen from 19 to 13 per thousand, a highly unusual drop in just three years. Astonishingly, in 2019 Bachu reported a birth rate of 4.15 per thousand people. That is one of the lowest birth rates anywhere in the world, and a decline rarely seen even in wartime.

Li Xiaoxia, a government sociologist in Xinjiang, has called reports of forced sterilisations “slander”. In an essay for state media in January she conceded that between 2017 and 2018, after the strict enforcement of rules, Xinjiang-wide births had fallen by 120,000 in a year. But Ms Li insisted that rural women from ethnic groups had “spontaneously” agreed to be sterilised. Some had taken rewards of 3,000 yuan ($460) or more for women willing to undergo tubal ligation before using their legal quota of children, she wrote. Others’ minds had been freed by officials “from the shackles of religious extremism”. She said Uyghurs and Han Chinese now followed the same rules, promoting “fewer and better” births. [Source]

Uyghurs who leave Xinjiang are often still in danger of being deported back to China. An extradition bill between China and Turkey, which has not yet come into effect, threatens to subject Turkey’s large Uyghur diaspora to deportation. A new report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project has revealed the lengths the Chinese government has gone to target Uyghurs beyond its borders. From Lizzy Davies at The Guardian, a dispatch on the UHRP report, detailing China’s use of its economic might to force Uyghurs abroad back into Xinjiang:

An estimated 1 to 1.6 million Uyghurs live outside China, according to the World Uyghur Congress, with the largest populations in central Asia and Turkey. However, the new database reveals the scale of Beijing’s targeting, with countries around the world playing a role in a range of practices including harassment, surveillance, detention and rendition.

Since 2017, it says, at least 695 Uyghurs have been detained or deported to China from 15 countries.

[…] Of the 10 countries where they found China to have most frequently used transnational repression against the Uyghurs, Beijing was among the largest creditors in four: Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia and Myanmar. [Source]

In an interview with Axios’ Jonathan Swan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan denied the existence of repression in Xinjiang, even as he castigated Western countries for demonizing Islam:

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