A new wave of media reports on Chinese forced labor relies almost entirely on a series of dubious studies by purportedly “independent” think tanks backed by the West’s military-intelligence apparatus.
By Ajit Singh
A recent surge in stories in the Western press accuse China of implementing an oppressive program of “forced labor” against the country’s Uyghur Muslim ethnic minority. The titanic crime China is accused of has been called “Xinjiang’s new slavery.” This alleged coercive system is said to encompass more than 80,000 laborers and implicate the supply chains of 83 global brands, including Apple, Amazon, Nike, BMW, Gap, Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen.
Featured in Western news outlets from Foreign Policy to the Washington Post to Democracy Now!, the reports rely on a series of questionable studies by purportedly “independent, nonpartisan” think tanks and crank experts backed by the West’s military-intelligence apparatus. Building upon the dubious but endlessly repeated claims that China is detaining millions of Uyghurs Muslims, these studies argue that “forced labor” is the “next step” in China’s tyrannical campaign against the ethnic minority.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) are the main institutions responsible for the forced labor studies. The reports have also relied heavily on an evangelical religious fanatic billed as the “leading expert” on Xinjiang, Adrian Zenz, who has said he is “led by God” on a “mission” against China.
A close look at the reports churned out by these bodies reveal serious biases and credibility gaps that Western media willfully ignores in its bid to paint China as the world’s worst human rights violator.
Both ASPI and CSIS are right-wing, militaristic think tanks funded by US and Western governments, mega-corporations, and an eye-popping array of weapons manufacturers. As previously reported by The Grayzone, Adrian Zenz is a far-right fundamentalist Christian whose questionable but incendiary accusations against China have led to the Western press crowing him as the leading international “expert” on Xinjiang. Zenz’s most recent claims of “forced labor” were published by a “journal” founded and managed by US and NATO military operatives.
Main sources in this story, which is part of a wider Cold War PR blitz:
-ASPI, a "think tank" run by Australia's Defense Department
-Adrian Zenz, a far-right End Timer from the US-backed Victims of Communism
-Uyghur Human Rights Project, a US-funded separatist lobbying operation https://t.co/ibr5zDvlJ5
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) March 8, 2020
The latest allegations against China appear to form part of a PR blitz seeking to escalate Washington’s new Cold War and regime change efforts against Beijing.
Shortly following the release of these reports, US Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern announced that he would be introducing a new bill which would ban all US imports from Xinjiang. McGovern is an ardent supporter of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a US-backed, far-right regime change network seeking the overthrow of the Chinese government. He even presented WUC President Dolkun Isa with the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2019 Democracy Award.
BREAKING: U.S. Representative McGovern announces Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would ***BAN ALL IMPORTS FROM XINJIANG*** to the United States! Bill to be introduced shortly. pic.twitter.com/8alcyghvSu
— Adrian Zenz (@adrianzenz) March 6, 2020
On March 9, US lawmakers introduced the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, co-sponsored by McGovern and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, which would effectively ban all imports from Xinjiang. The proposed act would codify into US law a “rebuttable presumption” that “assumes that all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are made with forced labor and therefore banned […] unless the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection certifies otherwise.” The bill also calls for the US President to impose sanctions on “any foreign person” who engages in “forced labor” in Xinjiang.
Even putatively progressive news outlets have joined the frenzy, with The Nation and Democracy Now! uncritically parroting these studies with no mention of their relations to the US and Western governments and military contractors. Furthermore, both of these media platforms interviewed members of the WUC-affiliated Uyghur Human Rights Project, Mustafa Aksu and Nury Turkel respectively, to comment on this story — again, with no mention or concern for their extensive ties to the US regime-change establishment.
‘Independent’ Australian think tank funded by US, NATO, and weapons manufacturers
The three reports relied upon in the recent “forced labor” media coverage are authored by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Adrian Zenz. While presented by the Western press as impartial, expert assessments, a closer look raises serious concerns about the biases and credibility of these “studies.”
On March 1, ASPI published a policy brief, titled “Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education,’ forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang.” The paper triggered the renewed round of Western media accusations against China.
While ASPI describes itself as a “an independent, non-partisan think tank” — a characterization that has been parroted by the Western press — it is, in fact, a right-wing, militaristic outfit that was founded by the Australian government in 2001 and is funded by the country’s Department of Defence.
ASPI is sponsored by a host of weapons manufacturers, including Raytheon Australia, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, MBDA Missile Systems, Saab AB, Thales, and Austalia.
Ironically, Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme — enacted by the center-right Liberal Party to monitor alleged threat of “Chinese political interference” in the country — has revealed ASPI’s extensive sources of foreign funding, including the US State Department, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), government of Japan, and NATO.
ASPI blasted for being US lackey, promoting new Cold War with China
A recent profile of ASPI in the Australian Financial Review notes that the organization has “been accused of fomenting anti-China hysteria, to the alleged benefit of its benefactors.” ASPI has been so bellicose it has come in for criticism from major figures in Australian foreign policy circles.
Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has slammed ASPI for pushing a “one-sided, pro-American view of the world”, while the former Australian ambassador to China Geoff Raby added that ASPI is “the architect of the China threat theory in Australia”.
Australian Senator Kim Carr of the Labour Party has echoed the criticism of ASPI, condemning the think tank for seeking to “promote a new cold war with China” in collaboration with the US. In a February 2020 parliamentary session, Carr warned that “[i]n parts of the [Australian] defence and security establishment, there are hawks intent on fighting a new cold war” with China, highlighting ASPI’s extensive funding from the US State Department’s Global Engagement Center, headed by former CIA officer and Navy fighter pilot Lea Gabrielle.
Carr said ASPI has received nearly $450,000 in funding from the US State Department for the 2019 to 2020 financial year. (ASPI claims that the amount is “less than half” of the figure stated by Carr.)
Shocking scenes. On floor of Australian Senate, @SenKimCarr attacks @ASPI_org, @alexjoske and
the ASPI China Defence Universities Tracker, claiming ASPI is an agent of US influence and cannot be trusted in its work studying CCP influence pic.twitter.com/707Duz1DTf
— Drew Pavlou (@DrewPavlou) February 11, 2020
These criticisms of ASPI appear to be well founded. Since 2012, ASPI has been headed by Peter Jennings, a former Australian Department of Defense official. Jennings is an ardent advocate of US imperialism who has staunchly defended the Iraq War, supported regime change in Syria, and pointed to Ukraine and Iraq to argue that “the West is setting the bar for a military response too high.”
Jennings believes that “the rise of Leninist autocracies” threaten Australia and global peace, applying the label to China and North Korea, and, bafflingly, Russia and Iran. He is an ardent advocate of expanding and making “bulletproof” Australia’s military alliance with the US and “letting the Beijing Bully know this is our neighbourhood”, including expanding joint naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
Jennings and ASPI have also pushed for Australia to join Washington’s global campaign to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from 5G networks around the world. Australia banned China’s Huawei and ZTE from providing the country with 5G technology in 2018.
ASPI’s ‘forced labor’ report relies on speculation and sensationalism
On March 1, ASPI published a policy brief titled “Uyghurs for sale: ‘Re-education,’ forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang.” The report was funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which oversees Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) the UK equivalent to the National Security Agency, and the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) commonly known as MI6.
As Mohamed Elmaazi and Max Blumenthal previously reported for The Grayzone, the FCO backs the Integrity Initiative, a propaganda mill which smears left-wing figures across the West, including former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The lead author of the report is ASPI researcher Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, a Chinese-Australian journalist and stand-up comedian, who previously studied at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute in Israel. In her published work, Xu has defended the far-right Falun Gong cult and characterized Chinese-Australians who oppose the US-backed, anti-government protest movement in Hong Kong as “brainwashed” puppets of the Chinese government and violent thugs.
Opening with the highly suspect claim that China is detaining millions of Uyghur Muslims, the ASPI study contends that China’s “re-education campaign” is “entering a new phase” in which at least 80,000 Uyghurs “are now being forced to work in factories” through a program transferring Uyghur laborers to companies within Xinijang and to other provinces. The factories employing these workers are alleged to be part of the supply chain of 83 major corporations.
The study contends that the Chinese government has implemented the coercive program under the guise of poverty alleviation and generating employment for impoverished sectors of the population. The authors ignore the fact that China’s poverty alleviation efforts are praised by development institutions around the world for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and presume it to be a phony pretext.
While Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang is indisputably focused on combating religious extremism, separatism and political instability — the government openly admits to this — the authors’ claims of a dystopian forced labor regime seem to rely more on sensationalism and speculation than concrete evidence.
- The authors claim that workers are tightly controlled, with “little freedom of movement” and “isolated from their families.” As evidence, they cite a Chinese-language media report which features a story about a migrant worker from Xinjiang who obtained full-time industrial employment in the urban province of Shandong through the government’s employment program. The woman describes the challenges of working far away from her family in Xinjiang but emphasizes that she has used the program to earn more income and pay for household renovations and new livestock back home. What’s more, the woman states that while she initially wanted work through the program for only one year, she now wants to work for at least three years given the income it allows her to earn, indicating that she is voluntarily choosing to participate in the program for economic benefit.
- Throughout the report, the authors refer to housing provided for migrant workers as “segregated dormitories.” On the one hand, the authors decry the “segregation” and “isolation” of the Uyghur workers who “speak almost no Mandarin, so communication with locals is largely non-existent,” but denounce Mandarin language classes offered to workers as insidious “political indoctrination.”
- The authors claim that “workers’ ideology and behaviour are closely monitored,” citing the existence of a “psychological consulting” service.
- The authors searched for “a variety of keywords relating to Xinjiang labour transfers” on the Chinese search engine Baidu and cite the increase in search results over time as indicating the increasing importance of the program to the Chinese government. This would be akin to analyzing US policy based on the volume of Google search results.
Ultimately, only two pages and a case study of a single factory are devoted to establishing the case of “forced labor”, with the vast majority of the 56-page report focused on connecting this alleged involuntary program with the major Western corporations and pressuring them to disengage with China.
ASPI’s ‘forced labor’ report relies on far-right blog of religious fanatics
The ASPI report presents no original evidence from workers who have been forced to work in this program, but cites anonymous “testimonies” from an obscure, far-right online blog. Called Bitter Winter, the blog is a project of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an Italy-based organization that opposes what it calls “anti-cult terrorism”.
Bitter Winter and its parent organization have vigorously defended fanatical Chinese religious movements including Falun Gong and the Church of the Almighty God, or Eastern Lightning. The latter is a Chinese-Christian sect which believes that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a Chinese woman currently living in Queens, New York.
Eastern Lightning is notorious for mass kidnappings, assaults, and murderous violence against perceived “demons” or non-believers, including bludgeoning a woman to death for refusing to give recruiters her phone number in 2014. During the 2019 Israeli elections, Buzzfeed reported that Twitter suspended dozens of Hebrew-language accounts run by the cult for “amplifying political messages for right-wing [Israeli] politicians.”
CESNUR has also taken up the cause of the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo which was responsible for the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack. CESNUR board member J. Gordon Melton was paid by Aum Shinrikyo to travel to Japan to document alleged human rights violations against the group.
CESNUR founder, Massimo Introvigne, is the editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter. Introvigne is an ultra-conservative religious zealot who contends that Christians are “the most persecuted group in the world” due to abortion, gay marriage, and hate speech laws which he contends supress their religious freedom.
Introvigne considers communism to be an existential threat to religion, writing that “[n]egotiating with Beijing is like the proverbial supping with the Devil.” Introvigne regularly appears in videos produced by Church of the Almighty God/Eastern Lightning advocating on their behalf and claiming the cult is the victim of “propaganda” and “fake news”.
Introvigne has deep roots in the religious far-right, and was a long-time member and former vice president of the Italian organization Alleanza Cattolica, participating in the group from 1972 until 2016. During his time with the organization, Alleanza Cattolica advocated for Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet to be released following his arrest in the UK; denounced the progressive World Social Forum as a “laboratory for subversion”; and endorsed the Northern League, a far-right, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic political party, in Italian elections.
The “director-in-charge” of Bitter Winter is Marco Respinti, a far-right Christian conservative who describes his work as “devoted to serve and protect the Western heritage of life, liberties, and property” and working towards a society of “limited government, free enterprise, natural family, and traditional moral values.” Respinti is a Senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and a founding member of the Center for European Renewal, two ardently conservative organizations, and editor-in-chief of the anti-gay, anti-choice publication International Family News.
Australian media stifle criticism of ASPI report, manipulate interview subjects
As they push forward with their anti-China frenzy, Western media outlets are not concerned with the serious issues related to the biases and credibility of the ASPI report, in fact, they seem intent on stifling any criticism of their narrative.
Shortly following the release of the report, the state-run Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) aired a profile of lead author, Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, as part of their “Australian Story” documentary series. According to Ye Xue, a Chinese-Australian PhD student at the University of Sydney, who was an interviewee on the program, the broadcaster pushed him to “praise Vicky’s research on Xinjiang” and made it clear “that they [did] not need my negative comments” or to hear that he disagreed with Xu.
I was an interviewee on @AustralianStory. The interviewer signaled me that they not need my negative comments on Vicky Xu, even they are valid and the interviewer tried to push me to praise Vicky’s research on Xinjiang.
— Ye Xue (@XueYe90) March 10, 2020
The silencing of alternative viewpoints on China appears to be part of a larger trend within Australian media. Michael, a Chinese Muslim who lives in Australia and requested anonymity to protect himself from reprisal by his employer, told The Grayzone that Australian media outlets often attempt to manipulate Chinese-Australians into echoing the official narrative on China.
“SBS, a television network funded by the [Australian] government called me for an interview on Chinese Muslims in Australia,” Michael told The Grayzone. “When I didn’t tell her what she wanted, she asked me if my family was held hostage, in danger or being coerced.”
“She wanted me to confirm her narrative that the Chinese government had operatives following me and were actively suppressing me in Australia,” continued Michael. “Anyway, she never called back.”
“There are more Chinese-Australians who’ve had similar experiences. They seem to cast a wide net and hope to get someone like Vicky Xu who will just confirm all their narratives.”
Far-right Christian fundamentalist publishes ‘forced labor’ report in NATO publication
The ASPI report followed two earlier studies. The first was authored by Adrian Zenz, senior fellow in China studies at the far-right Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was established by the US government in 1983.
As Max Blumenthal and I previously reported for The Grayzone, Zenz is a far-right fundamentalist Christian who opposes homosexuality and gender equality, supports “scriptural spanking” of children, and believes he is “led by God” on a “mission” against China. Zenz is one of the main sources behind the claim that China is detaining millions of Uyghur Muslims, and he has been promoted as the “leading expert” on Xinjiang by Western media because of the damning claims he makes against the Chinese government.
However, a closer look at Zenz’s work reveals that he relies on extremely shoddy evidence and methodologies, including basing his detention estimate on a lone media report by an extremist television network that regularly hosts fanatical anti-Semites who describe China as “a nation of savages, worse than the Jews” and call for “armed jihad” against the country.
In December 2019, Zenz published a new “study” titled “Beyond the Camps: Beijing’s Long-Term Scheme of Coercive Labor, Poverty Alleviation and Social Control in Xinjiang”, in which he accuses China of implementing a forced “wage-labor” regime against Uyghurs as the “next step” in Beijing’s “grand scheme” against the ethnic minority. Zenz calls for a “strong response” from the international community, including the divestment of Western and other foreign companies from China.
However, as with his previous work, Zenz’s latest report is riddled with speculation, sensationalism, and incoherence. Zenz begins his article with the contention that this nefarious, coercive program is “being implemented under the […] guise of ‘poverty alleviation’” through higher-income work, only to later admit that the program, in fact, “achieve[s] national poverty reduction goals” and “promote[s] economic growth.”
Zenz maligns what he calls the Chinese government’s aims to ensure “poor households … have at least one person in stable employment” and promote full-time, paid employment. He argues that since China’s poverty alleviation efforts are “all-encompassing and involves literally every single citizen” it must necessarily be forced because he speculates that “not everyone will want to be part of this rigid plan.”
Zenz claims that the Chinese government aims to force every Uyghur and ethnic minority adult into slave labor and eliminate traditional rural livelihoods and culture. To support his incendiary claim, he cites a mundane municipal government document that calls for achieving poverty alleviation goals through vocational training and employment programs, as well as initiatives like “environmental protection programs,” “subsidies in monetary form or animals” for farmers, and “support [for] small-scale self-employment” or small businesses.
Zenz’s characterization of of the Chinese government’s programs for public childcare and educational services for the children of workers offers a revealing look at the propagandistic nature of his claims:
“While the parents are being herded into full-time work, their children are put into full-time (at least full day-time) education and training settings. This includes children below preschool age (infants and toddlers), so that ethnic minority women are being ‘liberated’ and ‘freed’ to engage in full-time wage labor. Notably, both factory and educational settings are essentially state-controlled environments that facilitate ongoing political indoctrination while barring religious practices. As a result, the dissolution of traditional, religious and family life is only a matter of time.”
Zenz describes full-time employment and childcare services as “inhibit[ing] intergenerational cultural transmission” and promoting “intergenerational separation and social control over family unity”. Citing a Chinese media report in which a mother describes how the childcare services “solved my problem, now there are people who take care of my children, I can in peace go to work … very convenient,” Zenz denounces this as a “shocking example of this ‘liberation’ of women from their children”.
Unsurprisingly, Zenz’s flimsy research on “forced labor” has not been published in a reputable academic journal, but rather “The Journal of Political Risk,” a publication headed by former NATO and US national security state operatives.
The publication was founded by Anders Corr, whose bio describes him as “having worked for several consultancies and government agencies, including Booz Allen Hamilton, United States Army, United States Pacific Command (USPACOM), United States Special Operations Command Pacific (USSOCPAC), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), and the North American Treaty Organization (NATO).”
The editor of the publication is Neil Siviter, who “previously worked as a Junior Professional Fellow at the NATO Association of Canada,” and “has also held various internship positions with the Canadian Government [and] U.S. Consulate General Toronto.”
US militaristic think tank recycles shoddy research in ‘forced labor’ report
The final study accusing China of implementing “forced labor” programs against Uyghur Muslims was a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) entitled, “Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains”.
Like ASPI, CSIS is a militaristic think tank funded by the US government and a host of military allies including the UK, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Australia, South Korea, Turkey, Germany, Italy, and the EU. CSIS also receives significant funding from a number of weapons manufacturers, fossil fuel corporations, and banks.
In April 2019, Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal exposed a secret meeting hosted by CSIS, where US and Latin American officials discussed a possible military invasion of Venezuela. That November, The Grayzone’s Ben Norton reported that CSIS hosted a US congressional panel which outlined the next phase of Washington’s dirty war against Syria, including plans to occupy Syrian oil fields and block reconstruction of the country.
In its “forced labor” report, CSIS offers little to no new information, relying instead on the work of Adrian Zenz and undisclosed interviews with anonymous “detainees who were forced to work.”
While the Western public encounters stories about alleged “forced labor” as shocking journalistic exposés, they are, in fact, the direct product of an orchestrated PR campaign backed by US and EU governments, NATO, and arms manufacturers – all of which stand to benefit handsomely from the intensification of a new Cold War.
Ajit Singh is a lawyer and journalist. He is a contributing author to Keywords in Radical Philosophy and Education: Common Concepts for Contemporary Movements (Brill: 2019). He tweets at @ajitxsingh.