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ERLC applauds finding of forced labor by China

Uyghurs detainees in a camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017. Wikipedia Creative Commons

WASHINGTON (BP) – The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission welcomed a new report to the United Nations that determined China has been practicing forced labor among ethnic minorities.

Tomoya Obokata, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, reported it is “reasonable to conclude” forced labor by Uyghurs, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities has taken place in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and some of the coercion “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity.”

Obokata’s findings appeared to affirm the conclusions of two United States presidential administrations and the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Trump administration announced its decision that China is guilty of genocide against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang on its last full day in January 2021, and the Biden administration affirmed that determination weeks later. In June 2021, messengers to the SBC’s annual meeting in Nashville passed a resolution that made the convention the first Christian denomination to denounce China’s campaign against the Uyghurs as genocide.

News reports have indicated the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has carried out a campaign primarily against the Uyghurs, predominantly Muslims in western China, that has included not only forced labor but widespread detention in “re-education” camps and a coercive population control program of abortion and sterilization.

ERLC Acting President Brent Leatherwood described Obokata’s findings regarding forced labor in Xinjiang as “a significant development that demands the world’s attention.”

“It should erase any doubt that the Chinese government is systematically mistreating and enslaving the Uyghur people,” Leatherwood told Baptist Press in written comments. “The independent nature of the report only further confirms that SBC messengers were absolutely right to label these atrocities a genocide with passage of the 2021 resolution.”

Adrian Zenz, an expert on China, called Obokata’s conclusion an “extremely significant and strong assessment” in a tweet. Zenz is senior fellow and director in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Obokata’s findings on forced labor in China came in the context of a 20-page report about slavery that affects “ethnic, religious and linguistic minority communities” globally. The document – prepared for the U.N. Human Rights Council’s next session, which begins Sept. 12 – is dated July 19, but Obokata announced its availability Aug. 16 on Twitter.

The conclusions on China’s practices were based on “an independent assessment” of a variety of sources and found the forced labor occurred in such sectors as agriculture and manufacturing, Obokata wrote.

He cited two separate labor systems mandated by the Chinese government – “(a) the vocational skills education and training centre system, under which minorities are detained and subjected to work placements; and (b) the poverty alleviation through labour transfer system, where surplus rural labourers are transferred into secondary or tertiary sector work.” Similar programs also exist in the Tibet Autonomous Region, according to the report.

While the programs may establish employment opportunities and increased income, an argument made by China’s government, evidence points to the “involuntary nature of work” by minorities in “many cases,” Obokata reported. The authority asserted over workers includes “excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restrictions of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment,” he wrote.

The CCP’s oppressive practices in Xinjiang that have been reported have included tracking Uyghurs by means of a high-tech surveillance system that has obtained genetic data on many residents. It is estimated more than 1 million Uyghurs, and maybe as many as 3 million, have been detained in “re-education” camps. Forced labor is common, according to reports. Life in the camps reportedly can result in rape, torture and coercive organ harvesting. Uyghur women are also at the mercy of forced abortions and sterilizations.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned Obokata’s report and charged him with believing “in lies and disinformation about Xinjiang spread by the U.S. and some other Western countries and anti-China forces.” He told reporters Aug. 17, “There has never been ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang.”

The announcement of Obokata’s report came after China ratified two conventions on forced labor Aug. 12 with the International Labor Organization, including one that bans the use of forced labor in all forms.

The policies in Xinjiang have come during the last decade under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who has been the CCP’s general secretary since 2012 and China’s president since 2013.

“Despite this dark cloud of dehumanization hanging over him, we know President Xi is planning a precedent-breaking third term as leader,” Leatherwood told BP. “He once cast a vision of China being ‘culturally advanced,’ yet this report shows – under his leadership – the government is conducting some of the most culturally heinous actions imaginable. America, and the entire international community, must make clear the findings at the center of this report are unacceptable.”

The ERLC has called for adoption of U.S. policies to combat China’s repression of the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.

President Biden signed into law in December 2021 the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, ERLC-endorsed legislation that prohibits products made with forced labor in Xinjiang from being introduced into the American market. In June, Leatherwood expressed his “profound concerns” in a letter to Biden that a new White House order could be used to allow into the United States solar cells and modules produced by the Uyghurs under forced-labor conditions.