Sam Brownback is worried. On March 20, the United States Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom tweeted,
Reportedly, the PRC forces #Uyghurs to work in environments that risk #COVID19 exposure. These actions are not in step with a nation acting in the best interests of its people. China must reverse course, act responsibly, & ensure the safety of all religious and ethnic communities.
Is the Chinese communist government exploiting the raging coronavirus pandemic as a biological weapon of persecution against the Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in remote Western China? In an interview, I asked Brownback the basis for his concern. He told me that there is “no doubt” about the oppressive conditions to which Uyghurs are subjected. “We have multiple eyewitnesses. We have satellite photos of the camps,” by which he means mass-incarceration “re-education” facilities where detainees are forced to renounce their faith and are subjected to political indoctrination, torture, rape, and other physical and emotional forms of oppression. Brownback’s many private conversations with activists and “multiple public reports from reliable human rights groups and Western media” have convinced him that imprisoned Uyghurs face, if not intentional infection, at the very least sharply increased unnecessary risk of disease.
I asked Nina Shea, Director for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute — one of the world’s premier experts on China’s suppression of its religious minorities — whether or not she shares Brownback’s concern about the Uyghurs and coronavirus crisis. Absolutely, she said, and identified the potential reason to the government’s reckless indifference of its own people. “Religious practice is the only area which the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t have full control over,” Shea told me by email. “The disease has a silver lining for Xi [Jinping] and the [Communist] party. It has corralled food-deprived Uyghur Muslims in squalid detention centers and work camps where the virus can be expected to take a toll.”
A disturbing article published in The Diplomat, a respected international current affairs journal that focuses on Asia, adds heft to the alarm expressed by the diplomat and think-tank scholar. “Grave human rights abuses in the [re-education] camps suggest the region could become a breeding ground of coronavirus,” Munawwar Abdulla, co-founder of the Tarim Network, which advocates for defending Ughyur heritage internationally, wrote:
Detainees are held in extremely overcrowded cells where it is at times impossible to stretch without touching the person next to you. Accounts from survivors suggest many in the camps are left extremely weak from malnutrition, and terribly unhygienic conditions of the camps and physical, mental, and sexual abuse. They are therefore at a much higher risk of being infected and dying from the coronavirus.
The coronavirus is an extremely communicable disease. How would authorities quarantine inmates imprisoned cheek to jowl?
That’s very bad. But even worse news about the treatment of Uyghurs by the communist government is slowly emerging out of Western China. In addition to the brutal conditions in the detention prisons, and beyond the potential for the highly communicable virus to devastate the camps, able-bodied Uyghur men and women are systematically Shanghaied into forced labor in factories and manufacturing facilities in their home region and throughout China — a human rights abuse that, Brownback fears “produces products that find their way into broad commercial use.” If true, the prices of the electronics and clothes we purchase — much of which are partially or wholly manufactured in China — are subsidized by Uyghur quasi-slave labor. That makes us all unintentionally complicit in profound evil.
That is certainly a conclusion reasonably drawn from reading Uyghurs for Sale, a shocking study published by the prestigious Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The 51-page detailed report — including a detailed appendix and 287 endnote citations — describes with great clarity the exploitation of Uyghur forced laborers. From the report:
There is mounting evidence that many Uyghurs are now being forced to work in factories within Xinjiang [the province in northwestern China where most Uyghurs live]. This report also reveals that Chinese factories outside Xinhiang are sourcing Uyghur workers under a revived, exploitive government-led labor transfer scheme. Some factories appear to be using Uyghur workers sent directly from “re-education camps.”
The report claims that between 2017 and 2019, 80,000 Uyghurs were so exploited “under a central government policy known as “Xinjiang Aid.” Not only is it almost impossible for victims to escape being impressed into such involuntary servitude, but according to the report, labor brokers “are paid a price per head by the Xinjiang provincial government.” Money is a great motivator.
A quoted advertisement describes the systematic transfer of workers in and out of the factories and declares, “Those employed need to receive a thorough ideological education and remain in their jobs.” Uyghurs often live in segregated housing and are deprived of free movement. In other words, Uyghur conscripts can’t refuse work assignments, they can’t hold true to their religious practices while performing coerced labor, and they can’t quit.
Making matters worse — and echoing Brownback’s fears that our product supply has become tainted by these abuses — the report “identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces” that exploit Uyghur forced labor victims. These factories “claim to be part of the supply chain of 83 well-known global brands.”
An even more recent report released by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China offers further evidence of the veracity of the “forced labor” allegations against China. The Commission, created by federal statute in 2000, is legally “mandated to monitor human rights and development of the rule of law in China.” In March 2020, the commission’s staff report reached strikingly similar conclusions as the ASPI finding. From “Global Supply Chains, Forced Labor and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” (my emphasis):
Global supply chains are increasingly at risk of being tainted with goods and products made with forced labor from XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region]. Intrusive surveillance, restrictions on movement, and the inability to obtain reliable information from workers at risk of detention and other reprisals makes it increasingly impossible to conduct due diligence. The risk of complicity in forced labor is high for any company importing goods from the XUAR or those partnering with companies in the region.
The report charges that Uyghur workers “are often paid well below minimum wage. In some cases they are not paid at all,” conditions that the report concludes may meet the international legal definition of “crimes against humanity.”
Brownback notes that the solution to the crisis is easy to identify but hard to compel in a country with the power, wealth, and international influence of China. “Free prisoners from the camps, let all religions practice their faith freely, open the doors to Western journalists, NGOs, and the State Department to investigate the allegations,” i.e., freedom.
Some may shrug their shoulders at all of this in the belief that remedying human rights abuses of the kind being inflicted against Uyghurs thousands of miles away are the responsibilities of national governments, the United Nations, and nonprofit NGOs. Those organizations should act with vigor and clarity, of course. But in this particular circumstance, I believe the soft power of the private sector would have a greater chance of ameliorating Uyghur suffering more effectively and with greater alacrity than often sclerotic efforts at international diplomacy.
Consider: Western companies profit tremendously from the inexpensive manufacturing paradigm offered by China. That being so, they also have the moral and legal responsibility to ensure that labor practices from which they benefit do not violate internationally mandated human rights standards. Moreover, the private sector may have greater influence on these matters than governments and international organizations. After all, China is dependent on them too, if only to maintain the country’s improving standards of living that contributes significantly to social stability. China’s need is real and gives these private companies clout — if they choose to deploy it.
It’s not as if the private sector doesn’t regularly flex its considerable fiscal muscles against social policies with which company executives disagree. Remember when North Carolina passed a “bathroom law” requiring people to use the public restroom of their biological sex? Some of our largest corporations boycotted the state. Ditto when Indiana passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Corporate America all but promised to withdraw from the Hoosier State because of the supposed bigotry the law would allow against the LGBT community, a threat in which Apple — which is hip-deep in China — vocally participated. These actions by the business community were successful in forcing both states to moderate their policies.
Whatever one thinks of those statutes, they are nothing compared to the “Fourth Reich” brutality mounted by China against the Uyghurs and other minority religions, actions such as forced organ harvesting of Falun Gong practitioners and social excommunication of Christians. If companies doing business in China focused their energies on ensuring that they do not participate and/or benefit from these atrocities, much good could be done for the suffering victims of Chinese oppression.
Brownback agrees that the private sector could significantly contribute to mitigating Uyghurs’ suffering. “China is being exposed now for oppressive practices that have been going on for years,” he told me. “If the private sector told China’s business and government leaders that it was not going to accept products manufactured or supplied with forced labor, it would have a huge impact.”
How do we induce companies doing business with China to do that? The congressional study suggests several cogent actions, such as the administration “issuing a comprehensive import ban on all goods produced, wholly or in part, in the XUAR.” But how likely is that to happen with President Trump so focused on the next phase of trade negotiations with China? I am not optimistic.
But why wait for the administration to engage more muscularly than heretofore? Congress could immediately administer some proverbial sunshine disinfectant by inviting CEOs of corporations suspected of benefiting from forced/slave labor in China to testify before committees and detail their companies’ efforts to prevent directly or indirectly participating in quasi-slavery. That would get the moguls’ attention — and that of the tyranny — without a law being passed or a regulation being promulgated.
As the president likes to say, what have we got to lose? The lives and liberty of helpless Uyghurs await our moral clarity.
Award winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow and chair of the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.