US Economic Warfare vs China: Adrian Zenz & Xinjiang Cotton Lies

Adrian Zenz is regularly cited as the source regarding alleged abuses in Xinjiang, China. More recently, his reports have become the cornerstone of not only accusations against China regarding supposed “forced labor,” but also the justification for sanctions imposed by the US.

Deep Dive: Adrian Zenz & Claims of “Coerced Labor” in Xinjiang China

He is regularly involved in campaigns aimed at placing pressure on companies to divest from raw materials and processed goods emanating from Xinjiang as well as from any factory at all in China employing workers from Xinjiang.

A recent “Marketplace Investigation” published by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) cited Adrian Zenz and an anonymous alleged witness seen in CBC’s video walking around Washington DC as their sole sources for allegations against suppliers and retailers of using tomatoes the CBC claims are derived from “forced labor.”

Because of these allegations made by CBC, several companies were pressured to divest from business with suppliers in Xinjiang, closing markets and opportunities not only for companies employing employees from Xinjiang, but for Xinjiang employees themselves.

Yet neither in Zenz’ quoted comments in CBC’s article nor his appearance in an accompanying video did Zenz directly claim there was evidence of forced labor in Xinjiang. Instead CBC would claim (emphasis added):

Zenz said the “risk of forced labour is endemic and systemic” in China’s tomato industry and that “it’s high time [these companies] increased their awareness.”

In the accompanying video Zenz claims (emphasis added):

The prevalence [of forced labor] is indeed industry wide. The risk of forced labour is endemic and systemic.

When asked if it was a problem that some suppliers were shipping tomato goods from Xinjiang to Africa, Zenz would claim (emphasis added):

Yes, it is -it means they are using a product that carries a high risk of forced labour, and then they say, “we don’t sell this to the West, but it’s fine to sell it to Africans.”

Andrian Zenz did not misspeak. He is very careful not to actually claim forced labor is taking place in Xinjiang in definitive terms, because to date, no such evidence exists to substantiate such a claim. Rather, Zenz insinuates that it is taking place. A “high risk” of forced labor existing is not the same as actual forced labor taking place, yet this distinction is purposefully glossed over to deliberately insinuate that forced labor is most certainly “taking place.”

Zenz not only does this during interviews but also in the actual reports the Western media and Western governments regularly cite as “proof” of abuses taking place in Xinjiang, China and against Uyghurs and other Xinjiang minority groups  in general.

Zenz not only does this during interviews but also in the actual reports the Western media and Western governments regularly cite as “proof” of abuses taking place in Xinjiang, China and against Uyghurs and other Xinjiang minority groups  in general.

Adrian Zenz and Xinjiang Cotton Claims 

Adrian Zenz in his December 2020 report (PDF) published by the DC-based Newlines Institute titled, “Coercive Labor in Xinjiang: Labor Transfer and the Mobilization of Ethnic Minorities to Pick Cotton,” would, after 20 pages of innuendo, conclude that (emphasis added):

Overall, it is clear that labor transfers for cotton picking involve a very high risk of forced labor. Some minorities may exhibit a degree of consent in relation to this process, and they may benefit financially. However, in a system where the transition between securitization and poverty alleviation is seamless, and where the threat of extralegal internment looms large, it is impossible to define where coercion ends and where local consent may begin.

The report also concludes (emphasis added):

There are strong indications that the labor transfer scheme is coercive in key aspects (recruitment, transfer, on-site management). Evidence for this exists both for the broader scheme in general and specifically for labor transfer into cotton picking.

Therefore, it is very likely that a major share of cotton production in Xinjiang is tainted with forced labor. In the absence of the ability to conduct meaningful and independent audits of actual working conditions, it must be assumed that any cotton from Xinjiang may involve coercive labor, with the likelihood of coercion being very high. This has drastic implications for supply chains not only within China, but also for countries such as India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, or Pakistan, to which Chinese cotton yarn and fabric is exported and made into clothing.

This was Adrian Zenz’ conclusion – not a mere side note somewhere in the report. The report is in fact replete with evidence that contradicts Zenz’ premise that China is engaging in forced labor practices.

After 20 pages of “evidence” Adrian Zenz admits that no actual audit has been conducted (by him) regarding actual working conditions workers from Xinjiang labor under. This means that Adrian Zenz categorically cannot conclude there is forced labor taking place in Xinjiang and cannot actually even draw honest conclusions about how “likely” or what level of “risk” is associated with supposed forced labor..

Worse still, nowhere in the report does Adrian Zenz define “forced labor” or “coercive labor.”

Had he done so, the bar would have been raised even higher still and readers of his work would be left with the obvious conclusion that no evidence was available to write such a paper and ultimately, that such a paper should never have been written in the first place.

If the objective of the paper was purely political, the paper’s existence makes perfect sense. And indeed Zenz concludes his paper by offering it up as justification for the US government  and other governments around the globe to impose further economic sanctions on China.

Defining Forced or Coercive Labor 

The International Labor Organization (ILO) on its official website under a post titled, “What is forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking,” clearly defines forced labor.

According to the ILO, forced labor is:

…work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.

More specifically, the ILO defines it as:

“all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”

The ILO identifies three elements as part of this definition:

  1. Work or service refers to all types of work occurring in any activity, industry or sector including in the informal economy.
  2. Menace of any penalty refers to a wide range of penalties used to compel someone to work.
  3. Involuntariness: The terms “offered voluntarily” refer to the free and informed consent of a worker to take a job and his or her freedom to leave at any time. This is not the case for example when an employer or recruiter makes false promises so that a worker take a job he or she would not otherwise have accepted.

There are exceptions recognized by the ILO as well, including:

  1. Compulsory military service.
  2. Normal civic obligations.
  3. Prison labour (under certain conditions).
  4. Work in emergency situations (such as war, calamity or threatened calamity e.g. fire, flood, famine, earthquake).
  5. Minor communal services (within the community).

The use of force labor is specifically prohibited:

  1. as punishment for the expression of political views,
  2. for the purposes of economic development,
  3. as a means of labour discipline,
  4. as a punishment for participation in strikes,
  5. as a means of racial, religious or other discrimination.

These definitions were never fully qualified in Zenz’ Newlines Institute report nor was any evidence presented to indicate working conditions in China met ILO criteria for forced or coerced labor.

Zenz Presents Evidence That Contradicts Forced Labor Definitions 

In fact, Zenz himself offers up evidence that depicts Chinese labor schemes failing to fit ILO criteria. While he attempts to portray payments to laborers involved in cotton picking as falling short of promised wages he inadvertently offers up a logical explanation as to why some workers make less than promised.

Under a section of Zenz’ report titled, “Evidence Regarding Average Incomes for Cotton Picking” (page 18 of the PDF) it states:

State propaganda accounts often claim that cotton pickers can earn up to 10,000 RMB or more during their two to three months of hard labor, resulting in an impressive monthly income of 5,000 RMB or more. China’s rural absolute poverty income line in 2019 stood at 4,000 RMB per person per year, meaning that a household of five would need to earn a total of 20,000 RMB or 1,667 RMB per month

He then cites several accounts:

One account of transferred cotton pickers claimed an average monthly income of 4,800 RMB. Two other accounts, however, give average income figures of only 1,670 and 1,805 RMB per month. 

While it appears there is some discrepancy, Zenz himself offers up an obvious explanation – the more you work, the more you earn. You may have been promised high wages – but under the assumption you did a certain amount of work – just like anywhere else in the world.

Zenz clarifies:

These averages also are skewed by the fact that especially skilled or able-bodied pickers can earn high amounts, while the majority of workers are left with comparatively mediocre remunerations. 

Zenz then admits the lack of evidence he has to work with and again reiterates that this is not actual evidence of coerced labor, but merely “a factor that increases concern about coercion,” (emphasis added):

While the available data points on this are limited and not representative, it is concerning that these averages are below the region’s minimum wage and below publicly stated wages for low-skilled factory work. Given that cotton picking is difficult and typically requires relocation for months, this level of remuneration may not be attractive to some or many of those subjected to seasonal labor transfer – a factor that increases concerns about coercion.

Zenz also offers up evidence that while Chinese cadres do travel to villages to seek workers for seasonal work, it is voluntary. Chinese cadres promote labor opportunities as well as positive work ethics, and will continuously return to communities to do so until locals are swayed and take advantage of government working schemes.

The report notes (emphasis added):

Village-based work teams and other government workers spare no effort in the mobilization process. In a township that annually mobilizes 3,000 cotton pickers, 30 officials were reported to enter households to “mobilize surplus laborers to go out.” In a village in Jiashi County in Kashgar Prefecture, where locals were discovered to be “unwilling to go out to work,” officials entered every home for a second time and undertook “thought education work” until 60 persons had been mobilized into picking cotton.

Were these schemes “coercive,” potential workers would simply have been coerced to work – instead it is clear even by Zenz’ own account that the government was recruiting workers and would often leave with quotas unfulfilled requiring them to return later to ask again.

Zenz and others citing his reports insinuate that Xinjiang’s security apparatus, erected after years of deadly terrorism, plays a role in pressuring Xinjiang minorities to join government labor schemes with claims that refusal to do so “may” land them in detention facilities.

Zenz claims in his report:

The village-based work teams became a key component in the seamless integration of social control and securitization, linking household information with data from surveillance systems and the entire police state.

Zenz omits from his report the very real extremist and terrorist problem Xinjiang faced for many years and the necessity to not only create security policies to eradicate it, but also economic policies to drain the swamps of poverty that feed extremism and violence.

Zenz sidesteps this explanation and simply offers the coexistence of security and labor policies in Xinjiang as further evidence of the “risk” of coercive labor, insinuating that Uyghurs and other minorities who fail to join these labor programs are at risk of being detained.

No evidence of this is provided and Zenz’ own report includes accounts of government cadres clearly not fulfilling quotas, leaving, and returning again to repeat the recruitment process. Were Xinjiang’s security apparatus used as a means of coercion, this would not have been necessary. Quotas would either be fulfilled on a cadre’s first visit, or detention centers would be filled – leaving no reason to return to a particular community for a second attempt.

Why Chinese Government Labor Schemes Require Recruitment

There are many factors as to why Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang may not have wanted to initially join these labor schemes despite the obvious poverty even Zenz admits they faced. This includes a fear of the unknown and concerns about being unable to meet their community responsibilities should they leave for several months to work elsewhere.

The Chinese government – again by Zenz’ own admission – invested heavily in allaying these concerns. Zenz’ report notes:

The mobilization of minority cotton pickers can involve other measures designed to “free” them to leave their homes for two months. This includes centralized childcare and elderly care, as well as organizing the remaining villagers into small teams to look after the animals of those who pick cotton. 

At one point he describes another aspect of the work scheme the Chinese government developed to allay fears Xinjiang’s ethnic minorities might have about travelling to work – having them accompanied by staff to assist them in all matters.

Zenz’ report notes:

…a report from Aksu from 2020 states that cotton pickers are transferred to their work destinations in a “point-to-point transfer” fashion, which the article also refers to as “nanny-style service.” Cadres have different roles, with some acting as “security staff”: 

“Give full play to the front-line [cadres acting as] ‘instructors,’ ‘security staff,’ and ‘service staff.’ Except under special circumstances, these must eat, live, study and work together [with the cotton pickers], actively carry out ideological education during cotton picking, carry out epidemic prevention and control work, and assist in solving issues related to wage [payments] or accidental injuries.”

The account sternly warns cadres that they cannot “sleep in” but must be with the workers at all times. They are to operate like overseers.

In other words, these “cadres” were support staff who would, in addition to the responsibilities described in Zenz’ report, also serve as translators since many Uyghurs have a poor understanding of China’s national language, Mandarin.

Zenz – without any sort of qualification at all, simply labels them as “overseers” to fit the overall “coercive labor” theme of his report. In reality, the presence of this support staff would allay fears for Xinjiang laborers working far from home and give them direct access to qualified people who could help them in a variety of highly necessary ways related to their day-to-day lives throughout the duration of their employment (e.g. solving issues related to wages or accidental injuries).

The fact that this support staff lived side-by-side seasonal laborers meant they had instant access to support rather than having to take a day off to visit “human resources.” What appears to be a highly thoughtful policy to enhance the working conditions of seasonal laborers is depicted by Zenz without qualification as slavery.

Regimented Labor is Commonplace Across Asia, Not Indicative of “Forced” or “Coerced” Labor 

The regimented manner Zenz describes Xinjiang laborers being subjected to is no different than large scale labor anywhere else in China, or even across the rest of Asia. Zenz is depending on the cultural ignorance of his audience to portray the regimented nature of employment, including the use of uniforms, formations, training, and team-building exercises as some sort of punitive or coercive method.

Beyond the superficiality of this argument, Zenz categorically fails to demonstrate how it is evidence of actual coercion, or even evidence of a “risk” of coercion.

A “Risk” of Forced Labor is not the same as Actual Forced Labor 

Zenz concluded his Newlines Institute report by noting the “risk” of coercive labor, not by noting actual coerced labor.

While he uses the term “high” to quantify the risk, he never explains exactly what it means. We can assume that if the risk was actually high and coercive labor was taking place on the scale Zenz and others have suggested – there would be actual evidence to finally lay this issue to rest. But there isn’t.

Because of the United States government’s history of fabricating claims to justify otherwise indefensible economic sanctions and eventually military aggression against other nations, the lack of actual evidence presented by Zenz and others cited by the US government in regards to China means the only high risk that exists is the high risk we are being told another concerted lie.

Zenz admits he did not conduct any sort of actual audit of labor conditions in China, yet there are ways of doing so and companies have done so for years. Skechers, a US-based shoe manufacturer – in response to similar claims of coerced labor in regards to its supply chain did exactly that.

In a statement the company released earlier this year, it stated:

Skechers USA, Inc. (“Skechers”) is aware of recent reports, including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (“ASPI”) February 2020 Report entitled Uyghurs For Sale: ‘Re-education’, Forced Labour and Surveillance Beyond Xinjiang (the “Report”), which allege that the Chinese government has transferred Uyghurs from their home region to factories across China under conditions that suggest forced labor.

The statement then claims:

Immediately upon learning about the allegations in the Report, Skechers reviewed its internal records and confirmed that Lu Zhou, like all factories and suppliers, has acknowledged the Skechers Supplier Code of Conduct. Skechers also confirmed that, consistent with regular practice, it conducted multiple audits on Lu Zhou in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, both announced and unannounced, and that none of these audits revealed indications of the use of forced labor or other concerning labor conditions.

The statement also referred to audits Skechers itself conducted which matched the above mentioned audits. If Sketchers can do this, why can’t Adrian Zenz? Why can’t researchers in the West access these audits? Why aren’t these audits even mentioned in reports published by Zenz and others?

There are two possibilities as to why Adrian Zenz, ASPI, and others making these accusations refuse to do actual audits and proper investigations of their own since conducting them is indeed possible. They are either unqualified to do so – but then also unqualified to therefore investigate “coerced labor” in the first place. Or they deliberately choose not to, understanding that such audits would prove no coerced labor was taking place and remove this powerful propaganda tool from the table amid US-Chinese tensions.

CBC’s recent report demonstrates the power this propaganda tool has – that without even proving coerced labor was taking place in Xinjiang’s tomato industry, businesses were targeted, pressured, and “coerced” to cut ties with Xinjiang companies, thus reducing the prospects of Xinjiang’s workforce as a result.

Besides hurting China’s economy in a general sense – returning large segments of Xinjiang’s population back into poverty means opening the door back up to extremism and violence, and thus reintroducing a physical threat to China’s security as well.

The US has repeatedly demonstrated how far it will go to tell a lie – in regards to Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Syria from 2011 onward, and now the US is telling lies in regards to China.

If the US will deliberately tell lies – bolstered by the Western media and “experts” brought in specifically to buttress these lies – to implement war on the scale imposed on Iraq at the cost of a million lives including thousands of Western troops, why wouldn’t the US lie in regards to China? Conversely, considering the lack of actual evidence and Adrian Zenz himself using terms like “the risk of” coercive labor specifically because of a lack of evidence regarding actual coerced labor – what are the chances that this is the first time the US and the Western media are telling the truth?

If there is coercive labor taking place in Xinjiang or in regards to workers emanating from Xinjiang, no one has provided any evidence of it. In fact, in an attempt to accuse China of coercive labor practices, reports like Zenz’ regarding Xinjiang cotton seem to indicate the exact opposite – that China is recruiting workers and investing greatly in making these jobs as attractive as possible specifically because the work is voluntary.

US Economic Warfare vs China: Adrian Zenz & Xinjiang Cotton Lies

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