China Chat | Xinjiang "forced labor" witch trials see U.S. as judge and plaintiff

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by Fernando Munoz Bernal

BEIJING, June 5 (Xinhua) -- There is no shortage of talking heads in Western media eager to share their views on China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with terms like "genocide" and "forced labor" thrown around with gay abandon.

Yet few of these politicians and so-called experts have even visited Xinjiang, while my odometer can speak to my own familiarity with the region.

Between the months of April and August of last year, I drove my EV and trailer RV more than 15,000 km across Xinjiang, visiting 40 locations as I documented my experience.

What I captured during my self-funded journey -- as unique and enlightening as it was -- does little to disprove the unfair accusations of "forced labor" against Xinjiang. After all, it is just one man's experience.

Still, I feel compelled to share my enlightenment with you all the same.

For the last 20 years, while nearby countries dealt with the fallout from America's war on terror, China poured countless resources into Xinjiang to build up the region's transportation, infrastructure and production.

Successfully pulling a 1-tonne trailer with an EV through deserts, snowcapped mountains and lush green valleys, all the while conducting my daily online coaching business, ought to be a testament to the remarkable development of the region.

China's poverty-alleviation program is, without a doubt, the biggest humanitarian effort in history. The main goals were to connect cities and prefectures with roads, highways and the internet, and to bring in investment and boost incomes by offering people alternatives to farming and herding.

To achieve poverty alleviation, people needed to have better job skills. This meant setting up better education and training facilities in convenient locations and introducing these projects to locals residing in rural towns and villages.

Due to the vastness of the region, students and skilled workers often moved to places where they could access these services and where the jobs were available. Naturally, such locations offered room and board to individuals coming from outside the locality.

U.S.-funded NGOs have persistently portrayed this development strategy as evidence of human rights abuses, forced labor and the separation of families, despite the fact that variations of China's approach are found in most countries around the world -- people move to find better education and employment opportunities.

These NGOs never questioned the same scheme being implemented since the reform and opening-up around the now wealthy and highly developed coastal areas of China. Anyone visiting China can attest that migrant workers are a big part of China's economic success.

Over the last seven years of creating content related to China, I have learned that the best way to change perceptions is rational and intellectual debate.

Knowing from experience that the "Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act" (UFLPA) was an unfair bill, I took it upon myself to research it. These are my findings.

The definition of "forced labor" used in the UFLPA is based on section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which requires the existence of a penalty, or menace of it, for non-performance of labor.

Disturbingly, a search for the word "proof" in the over 3,300-word text of the UFLPA yields zero hits, while a search for the word "evidence" yields merely four results. Surprisingly, all of them relate to the importer's duty to prove the absence of "forced labor" in the supply chain of goods mined, produced or manufactured wholly or in part in Xinjiang.

The bill is based on a self-fulfilling premise that contradicts perhaps the most basic legal principle: presumption of innocence. The UFLPA was written in response to allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang without the need for presenting evidence of the existence of a penalty for non-performance, as mandated by the definition.

In addition, and in direct contravention of due process, the UFLPA automatically presumes that the importation of said goods is in violation of 19 U.S.C. §1307.

At the crux of the matter is the purposeful misconstruing of the Communist Party of China's poverty-alleviation efforts as "forced labor." In 2023, researcher Adrian Zenz successfully lobbied International Labor Organization (ILO) leaders to redefine the "forced labor" guidelines of 2001 and 2012 to include labor transfers, resulting in the updated 2024 handbook.

The updated ILO handbook includes the following indicator framework for coercive recruitment in the context of state-imposed "forced labor" for economic development:

"Other violations involve large-scale labor transfer schemes, where workers belonging to certain ethnic or religious minority groups must -- under menace of penalty -- relocate to another geographical area to work in a State or private enterprise, sometimes under guise of vocational training or regional economic development."

Unfortunately for Zenz et al, this updated definition presents several issues for those accusing China of "forced labor" in Xinjiang since, under poverty-alleviation schemes, labor transfers in Xinjiang also target impoverished Han Chinese.

Furthermore, they utilize satellite factories in rural villages which do not involve geographic relocation, and often involve sectoral transfer -- from farming or herding to wage labor in the industrial sector, the service sector, or wage labor within agricultural processing or seasonal harvesting. None of these poverty-alleviation measures qualify as ILO violations under the updated definition.

The insurmountable legal hurdle for these researchers remains the inability to provide evidence of transfers taking place under menace of penalty, much less in a systemic manner. This failure to prove malfeasance by poverty-alleviation cadres relegates their claims to the realm of unsubstantiated accusations and linguistic tricks.

Case in point, the conclusion of Adrian Zenz's paper published for the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy of December 2020 titled "Labor Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick Cotton," which reads: "… it is impossible to define where coercion ends and where local consent may begin." Or the Oct. 29, 2021 CBC News interview where he cleverly described Xinjiang's tomato industry as exhibiting the "risk of forced labor."

A quick note on Adrian Zenz. I cannot comprehend how the Western media and politicians have built their anti-China narrative about Xinjiang based on the foundation of a researcher who can be so easily debunked.

In a recent interview with Swiss newspaper NZZ, Zenz said: "Their children aren't allowed to speak Uighur language in school." Anyone visiting Xinjiang can demonstrate this to be patently untrue by simply turning on a radio or a television set.

Western media is similarly fond of exercising its artistic license. In 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Xinjiang, Bloomberg QuickTake reporter Colum Murphy traveled to the region to report on the polysilicon industry. On a clip shot in the dark, apparently using his phone for added drama, he can be seen saying: "In the end, we didn't make it into any of the polysilicon factories to see the facilities inside, and we didn't get to meet any of the executives."

Undeterred, Murphy conducts an online interview with Jenny Chase, head of solar analysis for BloombergNEF, who states: "There is little evidence that forced labor is involved in polysilicon manufacturing in Xinjiang." Neither Chase's professional assessment nor Murphy's confessed lack of information prevents Bloomberg from closing their hit piece by saying: "Embrace the green future, and you're possibly purchasing the products of forced labor."

The same can be said of NGOs and entities who succumb to their inability to compete and resort to smearing industries in the hope that new entities will be added to the list of sanctioned companies.

Take the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Once Marc Lewkowitz became the chair of the BCI in 2019, while he was still the CEO of one of the main competitors to the high-quality long-stem cotton produced in Xinjiang, SUPIMA Cotton, he proceeded to suspend BCI China activities on March 30, 2020 over concerns of labor abuses.

This was allowed to happen even though, since 2012, the Xinjiang project site had performed second-party credibility audits and third-party verifications over the years, and had never uncovered a single case of "forced labor."

Earlier this year, German chemicals giant BASF announced the sale of its stakes in two joint ventures in Xinjiang, caving to pressure stemming from documents released by Human Rights Watch (HRW), despite its own audits having found no evidence of human rights violations.

The accusations of HRW revolve around employees having participated in government-backed labor transfer programs, though HRW does not provide evidence of coercion as required by the ILO definition of labor transfers.

Foreign companies operating in Xinjiang are now at the mercy of the Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force, where the mere accusation -- however groundless -- of "forced labor" is sufficient for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to issue an order to withhold the release of such goods until an investigation is completed, according to the UFLPA.

As noted by U.N. Special Rapporteur Alena Douhan on her recent visit to Xinjiang to study the legality of U.S. sanctions on the region, one targeted entity has reportedly submitted more than 10,000 pages of documents with data concerning its personnel to challenge the allegations of "forced labor," yet its documentation was nevertheless deemed insufficient.

These threatened companies are fully aware, as per their own audits, that the accusations from these NGOs lack evidence. Nonetheless, they are forced to reassess their strategy in Xinjiang given that the UFLPA framework does away with the presumption of innocence.

The United States has effectively become both accuser and judge in its quest to ostracize Xinjiang from the global economy. Unable to prove the existence of systemic ILO violations, U.S. officials, through the UFLPA, have abandoned the lessons from the Salem witch trials and once again demanded evidence of innocence instead of providing evidence of guilt. Who knew this is what they meant by a rules-based order? Enditem

Editor's note: Fernando Munoz Bernal, a Colombian political commentator, sent us this article to share his in-depth findings and insights with a global audience. The views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Xinhua News Agency.

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