UN Special Rapporteur’s Report: “Reasonable to Conclude” Existence of Forced Labor in Xinjiang

A report released this week by UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery Tomoya Obokata stated that it is “reasonable to conclude” that there is forced labor in Xinjiang, and that certain instances of it “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity.” Separate from the long-overdue Xinjiang report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michlle Bachelet, which is expected to appear before she steps down at the end of this month, this report on forced labor provides one of the strongest critiques to date of China’s human rights policies in the region. Bloomberg summarized the report’s main conclusions regarding forced labor in Xinjiang:

“The special rapporteur regards it as reasonable to conclude that forced labor among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China,” Obokata’s report said. Similar policies were in place in Tibet, according to the report, which was dated July 19 and posted on Obokata’s Twitter feed Tuesday. 

[…] Obokata’s report outlined two labor systems in Xinjiang, including one in which minorities were detained and subjected to work placements to give them vocational skills, education and training. Separately, surplus rural laborers are transferred into secondary- or tertiary-sector work as part of a poverty-alleviation program. 

“Given the nature and extent of powers exercised over affected workers during forced labor, including excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, some instances may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis,” Obokata’s report said. [Source]

In February, the International Labor Organization (ILO) published a report expressing its “deep concerns” about China’s labor policies in Xinjiang, which include “coercive measures” indicative of forced labor. The ILO report was one of many cited in the Special Rapporteur’s this week. Finbarr Bermingham from the South China Morning Post explained the background of the Special Rapporteur and the significance of his report:

While it does not represent an official UN position – rapporteurs are independent appointees asked to investigate specific rights issues in specific regions and make recommendations – it is among the most critical of China’s human rights record to have come from within the body.

Obokata’s assessment was made following an “independent assessment of available information, including submissions by stakeholders, independent academic research, open sources, testimonies of victims, consultations with stakeholders, and accounts provided by the government”.

[…] Obokata is a Japanese scholar of international law and human rights, specialising in transnational organised crime, human trafficking and modern slavery.

He was appointed as the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, in March 2020, and has previously worked on human rights issues for the British government, the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Japan. [Source]

Uyghur advocacy groups around the world welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s report. The Campaign for Uyghurs released a statement calling it “an extremely important and comprehensive assessment” about abuses that human rights groups have criticized for years. The Uyghur Human Rights Project Executive Director Omer Kanat stated, “It should now be impossible for UN agencies and member states to ignore atrocities of this magnitude,” and called on the UN Office for Genocide Prevention to take action. The World Uyghur Congress described the report as a wakeup call for those refusing to address forced-labor-produced goods in global supply chains:

“The Special Rapporteur has concluded what those of us in the Uyghur advocacy movement have been saying for years,” WUC President Dolkun Isa said. “Forced labour programmes have been weaponised a tool of genocide by the Chinese Communist Party – and yet corporations around the world continue to turn a profit from atrocity, and governments refuse to legislate to put a stop to it. This report’s findings must be a wakeup call to those that have so far refused to take action on the proliferation of Uyghur forced labour made goods in global supply chains.” [Source]

The Chinese government reacted to the report with hostility. Chinese diplomats on Twitter called the evidence of forced labor “fake,” and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin criticized the Special Rapporteur

Certain special rapporteur chooses to believe in lies and disinformation about Xinjiang spread by the US and some other Western countries and anti-China forces, abuse his authority, blatantly violate the code of conduct of the special procedure, malignly smear and denigrate China and serve as a political tool for anti-China forces. China strongly condemns this.

[…] We solemnly urge certain special rapporteur to immediately change course, respect plain facts, observe the mandate of the Human Rights Council and code of conduct of the special procedure, perform duty in a fair and objective manner, stop using lies to stoke confrontation and create division, stop politicizing and instrumentalizing human rights issues, and stop serving certain countries’ political scheme to suppress and contain China by abusing the UN platform. [Source]

In a series of moves over the past two weeks, the Chinese government has attempted to rally support for its claims of innocence in the face of growing evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang. Last week, the government submitted to the ILO the ratification instruments of two conventions on the elimination of forced labor, which, as Xinhua claimed, “demonstrates its firm position on protecting workers’ rights and interests and cracking down on forced labor.” In April, the government ratified those conventions just before Michelle Bachelet began her tour of Xinjiang, in a move that critics say was taken only to improve deteriorating Sino-EU relations. 

One week earlier, China hosted a delegation of 32 diplomats from African and Asian Islamic countries on a visit to Xinjiang, where they toured three cities and met with “graduates” from “training centers,” as well as Party Secretary Ma Xingrui. In a public summary of their visit, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “Xinjiang’s achievements in prosperity, development and human rights protection cannot be erased by any disinformation or smearing,” adding that the foreign diplomats were satisfied that the “various rights of Muslims are duly guaranteed.” Using quotes from a plethora of African diplomats who visited Xinjiang on a separate visit, a Global Times article published last month suggested that people who have not visited the region cannot criticize its human rights policies. Chinese state media has been expanding its use of foreign voices to amplify CCP talking points, as documented recently by China Media Project. As a result of these propaganda techniques, some other media commentators have amplified the conclusions of these borrowed voices.

Highlighting another example of Chinese government propaganda used to combat accusations of forced labor, Rune Steenberg at ChinaFile recently analyzed the proliferation of Uyghur influencers who share videos of life in Xinjiang using CCP talking points:

Anniguli runs video channels on YouTube and the two Chinese platforms Haokan and Xigua. The channels present her as an average, 20-something vlogger in China. In this, her 746th video, she is not promoting any fashion brands, hot new products, or trendy life-hacks. Instead, what she sells to her millions of viewers, mostly within mainland China, is the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) preferred narrative about her native Xinjiang.

[…] Anniguli is one of dozens of young, fashionable ethnic minority vloggers uploading subtle, well-produced videos that support the Party line. Since 2018, Anniguli and her fellow influencers have posted hundreds of videos to Chinese social media sites, as well as to the U.S.-based YouTube. To a casual viewer, the videos may appear indistinguishable from the slew of others shared online by vloggers every day. The hosts film themselves going about their daily lives, commenting on subjects that appear to interest them. Yet their commentary closely mimics official state propaganda, at times echoing the government’s words verbatim.

[…] We have little doubt that the government supports, in various capacities, the production of these videos. In some ways, the videos represent just the latest iteration of propaganda featuring ethnic minority citizens expressing gratitude to the Party-state. Yet, the social media market has imbued them with layers of complexity, injecting commercial motivations and individual flair into otherwise stiffly scripted content. [Source]

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