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ASPI’s decades: ‘Uyghurs for sale’

Posted By on October 11, 2021 @ 06:00

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

The most widely read study ever produced by ASPI is Uyghurs for sale:‘re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang.

First published in March 2020 (with rolling additions and updates since), the report by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre had received nearly half a million unique page views and downloads by June 2021.

The lead author, Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, wrote:
The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.

The report estimated that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps. The estimate was conservative, and the real figure was likely to be far higher:
In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances.

The 2020 study Cultural erasure detailed China’s systematic program to rewrite the cultural heritage of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The campaign sought to erode and redefine the culture of the Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking communities to make those cultural traditions subservient to the ‘Chinese nation’, Nathan Ruser reported:
Using satellite imagery, we estimate that approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65% of the total) have been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 have been demolished outright, and, for the most part, the land on which those razed mosques once sat remains vacant. A further 30% of important Islamic sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes, including many protected under Chinese law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, mostly since 2017, and an additional 28% have been damaged or altered in some way.

Alongside other coercive efforts to re-engineer Uyghur social and cultural life by transforming or eliminating Uyghurs’ language, music, homes and even diets the Chinese Government’s policies are actively erasing and altering key elements of their tangible cultural heritage.

Apple Inc. severed ties with Chinese component supplier Ofilm because of its use of forced labour. Ofilm had to sell its factory and saw its share price plummet.

French prosecutors opened an investigation into four leading fashion retailers over suspicions that they benefited from and concealed ‘crimes against humanity’ by using Uyghur forced labour. The inquiry followed a lawsuit filed against the companies by human rights groups and a Uyghur woman who said she had been imprisoned in Xinjiang. The lawsuit was largely based on ASPI’s report.

ASPI can point to some direct policy impact beyond Australia. Legislation was introduced in the US Congress in 2019 that directly cited ICPC research.

Governments in the UK and Europe have introduced laws and regulations citing or informed by the centre’s work on 5G, technology transfer, supply chains, forced labour and other human rights issues, disinformation, critical infrastructure, and talent recruitment focused on science and technology.

ICPC runs a website, The Xinjiang Data Project, drawing on open-source data, including satellite imagery, Chinese government documents, official statistics, and a range of reports and academic studies. The site focuses on ‘mass internment camps, surveillance and emerging technologies, forced labour and supply chains, the “re-education” campaign, deliberate cultural destruction and other human rights issues’.

Another website, Mapping China’s Technology Giants, charts the overseas expansion of key Chinese technology companies. The project, first published in April 2019, was relaunched in June 2021 with new research reports, a new website and updated content. The data-driven online project—and the accompanying research papers—fill a ‘policy gap by building understanding about the global trajectory and impact of China’s largest companies working across the internet, telecommunications, AI, surveillance, e-commerce, finance, biotechnology, big data, cloud computing, smart city and social media sectors’.

ICPC took on new leadership in mid-2017, eager to push the think-tank model.

The new director, Fergus Hanson, had worked in three think tanks—the Lowy Institute, the Brookings Institution and the CSIS Pacific Forum. Hanson saw ‘an opportunity to take from that experience to try a new approach’. The new deputy director, Danielle Cave, had previously worked in two think tanks.

For Hanson and Cave, it was a case of going back to basics to focus on policy influence, both at home in Australia and globally. Cave summarises the philosophy:
The collapse of traditional media led many think tanks around the world to fill that vacuum by producing large volumes of opinion and analysis. But at the end of the day, opinion and analysis can be contradicted by the next person with a different opinion. The real value of a think tank is original, empirical, data-driven research.

The withering of old economic models for news media means fewer resources for investigative work and getting the ‘facts’. A think tank can do the investigation, amass the expertise and spend the time—picking up some of the work once done by journalism. ICPC uses its tools to amass the facts as data—a modern version of the old editor’s injunction for firm facts and hard news.

The Hanson–Cave approach brought together key elements:

  • finding and hiring young, emerging talent to bring in skills in open-source intelligence, such as geospatial mapping skills

  • an entrepreneurial model that created untied funding for research on sensitive and emerging topics that governments around the world desperately needed but were often too risk-averse to fund themselves

  • new approaches to the dissemination of research that took a more global approach

  • hiring people with a more diverse mix of skills and backgrounds, most notably ASPI’s first Chinese linguists and first Indigenous person.

The bets paid off.

In a few years, ICPC’s growth had doubled ASPI’s headcount, including one of the largest China teams in the think-tank world.

Topics worked on by the centre broadened out and new teams were built up to focus on information operations and disinformation; foreign interference; work on opening careers in science, technology, engineering and maths for Indigenous Australians; critical technologies; and cyber capacity building. Much of the work has an Indo-Pacific frame.

By 2020, ICPC had produced all 20 of ASPI’s most read reports, attracting hundreds of thousands of views from the US, China, the UK, Europe, India, Japan and Canada—in addition to Australia. This is the work of a centre with a staff of around 30 in mid-2021.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aspis-decades-uyghurs-for-sale/

[1] Uyghurs for sale:‘re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2021-08/Uyghurs%20for%20sale%2005AUG21.pdf?VersionId=GP9ffrnwRXoF2FCWUM_pd5YodoTBK_.U

[2] Cultural erasure: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-09/Cultural%20erasure_0.pdf?VersionId=NlJYOaEV6DF3IfupGsdb73xtX0wCNokg

[3] forced labour: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-17/shares-of-china-s-ofilm-drop-after-firm-loses-foreign-customer

[4] sell its factory: https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/China-tech/Cotton-to-iPhones-Xinjiang-labor-casts-shadow-over-electronics

[5] based: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/fashion/xinjiang-forced-labor-Zara-Uniqlo-Sketchers.html

[6] cited: https://gallagher.house.gov/media/press-releases/gallagher-hartzler-introduce-bill-ban-chinese-military-scientists-american-labs%20and%20https:/www.cruz.senate.gov/files/documents/Bills/2019.05.14_PLA%20Visa%20Security%20Act.pdf

[7] The Xinjiang Data Project: https://xjdp.aspi.org.au/

[8] Mapping China’s Technology Giants: https://chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/#/homepage

[9] An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/informed-and-independent-voice-aspi-2001-2021