Chinese state media denies BBC reports of forced labour in Xinjiang cotton fields

William Langley
·4-min read

Chinese state media outlets have hit out at a BBC report on forced labour in Xinijang, saying it was inaccurate and more like a scripted drama.

The report headlined "China's 'tainted' cotton" released earlier this month that said it had seen evidence that hundreds of thousands of Uygurs were being forced to pick cotton. The BBC also said its reporters had been consistently followed and obstructed throughout their visit to the region.

China's state media, including China Daily and Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with People's Daily, have both issued detailed rebuttals of what they said was inaccurate reporting from the BBC.

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In recent weeks, Xinjiang has been a source of increasing tension between China and the West.

Last week, concerns about forced labour threatened to derail an investment deal between China and the European Union - although on Monday it was reported that all 27 members were poised to agree the deal after "positive movement" from China on the issue.

This month, the European Parliament passed a resolution to condemn China's actions in Xinjiang and to urge member states to sanction the officials involved.

The US has already sanctioned some Chinese officials over their activities in Xinjiang, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered a review into whether China's actions in the region amounted to genocide.

The incoming Biden administration has also expressed concern over the EU deal.

The BBC said that in addition to "well-documented evidence" of forced labour in textile factories, it had found new evidence that over half a million people from ethnic minority groups were being coerced into picking cotton in the region.

It said one man pictured waving his hands in front of his face was a private security guard who did not want his picture taken, while unmarked cars that the BBC said were following them were in fact officials from the local information office who had been sent to help the team.

It also said satellite images showing a re-education centre next to a factory were misleading, because the former closed before the latter opened.

Both reports also said they independently spoke to factory workers who said they worked voluntarily and happily.

Last month, Global Times also took issue with a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, which used satellite images to identify what it said were detention facilities in the region.

The newspaper said many of these facilities performed other functions, such as schools or elderly care centres. But the ASPI said many of the claims in the report were untrue and satellite images showed that they were not in the locations the newspaper said they were.

The BBC was contacted for comment on Monday but has not yet responded.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Baptist University in Hong Kong, said Xinjiang was going to remain a major stumbling block for China's relations with the rest of the world.

"This issue is not going to go away," said Cabestan. "It's part of the new cold war with the US."

He said Western countries had launched a "counteroffensive" against China's efforts to convince other countries to separate its domestic human rights records from its foreign policy.

"There is a battle going on. China has been very good at mobilising a number of developing countries and elsewhere to support its policies," he said. "Apparently there have been some changes, but China is still ahead [in mobilising countries for support]."

Cabestan said that the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang had cropped up relatively recently in European political discourse but regardless of the fate of the EU deal it was now a pre-eminent human rights issue for many countries in the bloc.

"It's becoming a big issue," he said. "It's going to continue to complicate relations between China and a number of countries, including the EU and US."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.