A Tainted Perspective to Look at “China’s Tainted Cotton” Report from the BBC

The BBC has created a sensational article exposing, they say, concerns over Human Rights in Xinjiang. In an article that doesn’t apply proper journalistic, or BBC’s own standards of balanced reporting, the authors misrepresent what’s going on in the region by deliberately providing misleading or incomplete quotes, failing to investigate alternatives and inferring opinions as facts, all while misunderstanding, or perhaps misreporting Chinese culture and history. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/nz0g306v8c/china-tainted-cotton)

There are three main points that need to be brought to the reader’s attention. These are: Throughout the report not one local person was interviewed, or if they were, it hasn’t been shown; The article is supported by documentation provided by Adrian Zenz; and that a key interviewee for the article makes a statement that his organisation will no longer certify Xinjiang Cotton, but the writers fail to complete this quote with the reasons. These points will become clearer as we look deeper.

The BBC may argue that asking questions of locals puts the local in some danger. I personally know this is untrue, I’ve visited Xinjiang many times, I’ve travelled through the region and met, eaten with and spoken to many locals, both Han and ethnic minorities. None have had any aversion or fear of speaking to me. Nor were we under surveillance as we cycled unrestricted over several thousand kilometres in several weeks with my wife (a Chinese) and an Australian friend through this beautiful region.

The source information the BBC refers to Adrian Zenz: Zenz is well known in both European and American media for his extreme views on Religion, Communism and Nazism. He has briefed Congress in the US and been quoted in many news reports but interestingly is rarely, if ever, (perhaps never) academically cited. This is an indication that his work is not highly regarded by his peers.

His research is paid for by the BBC, although they fail to mention this, Zenz himself proudly boasts on Twitter that this is the case. He produces sensationalism designed to harm China. His interpretive opinion being based on extreme evangelical Christianity, to paraphrase his own words: “Achieving God’s mission to destroy the Communist Party of China”. He’s also the Chair of an Ultra-right-wing organisation called Victims of Communism, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, a CIA offshoot.

Evidence that the BBC commissions Zenz for his research, a point missed in their article

As with many projects where the CIA and mass media are involved, they need a “useful tool” and Zenz fits the category perfectly. When he is finally debunked and his theories are proven to be completely wrong, the entire narrative of Western perception about what’s happening in Xinjiang will collapse. US Congress, the Senate and people throughout mainstream media will point a finger collectively toward one man and tell the world how Zenz deceived them — hence plausible deniability is obtained — they will all report unapologetically, that they had no idea how wrong he was.

This has happened many times in history. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, babies thrown from incubators in Kuwait, Viagra pills issued to soldiers to rape more victims in Libya, ships attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam. Even Hitler did it in 1939 by staging an attack on a German radio station in order to justify his march into Poland. There are more, so many more that it’s impossible to list them. All of them have been exposed later as lies and their perpetrators discredited.

If I have one criticism of China, it is that they continue to try to prevent people filming in the region. The BBC absolutely loves to show Chinese men approaching the cameras with their hands thrust out to stop the filming. What the BBC fails to point out is that these “authoritarian, brutal crackdown proponents” always allow them to keep the video and photos they already have. I’ve discussed this with several people and the best answer to the question of why this is so, came from a senior journalist I spoke to who replied: “They won’t take SIM cards or confiscate the cameras from them nowadays, they are not allowed to do that”.

Not allowed to do that? But this is a brutal regime, a regime which incarcerates millions and forces tens of thousands into slavery, how is it possible that they are not allowed to take a memory card from someone who might show the world this oppression? Obviously, this is one of the contradictions an intelligent observer can immediately see.

The truth is that if they were to do so, it would be illegal, there would be an international outcry and the BBC would have a genuine story. The fact is that China has a rule of law and the laws should be obeyed. What international journalists also need to understand is that to film in the area, or any other area in China, they need the permission of the appropriate departments — this is a bureaucracy without the appropriate paperwork the local official is going to prevent you from doing something that you don’t have permission to do. Get the appropriate paperwork and nothing is a problem. In Xinjiang however, the BBC constantly fails to adhere to these regulations and is thus breaking the law. Local officials in China will attempt to prevent people breaking the law. It’s a lot easier than arresting them having done so.

Here the BBC would argue that they never apply for permission because it would never be granted. And this brings us to another contradiction: they are BBC journalists with visas that state they are journalists and yet they are in a region they say is locked down and oppressed: how is this possible? They have local drivers and translators who are not detained, nor do the BBC fear for their safety because they know that China is a country that abides by the rule of law. Furthermore, journalists, like tourists, including myself and 150 million others in 2019, may freely go anywhere in Xinjiang as long as they have a visa. This is something the BBC fails to point out.

Using cleverly contrived words such as: “are thought to have been”, “allegations that”, “new evidence suggests”, “appears to” and using quotes from Zenz which start with: “in my view” and “I think that”, the document opens with allegations and claims, which no court could ever accept as proof, or even any degree of certainty. This protects the BBC later. If the information were to be challenged, the BBC can deny ever making an allegation but has cleverly protected itself from lawsuits and liability by suggesting; others have said. The BBC therefore, are merely the reporters of the allegations rather than the people making them.

From a cultural perspective the BBC goes on to quote a rather sinister sounding “paramilitary organisation” called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. There’s nothing at all sinister about this organisation. The background photo to the BBC’s own report shows newspaper reports which appear to be quite old the headlines show things such as: “54,000 people go to one area to pick cotton for income” These are old news reports and demonstrate that this is nothing new. In fact, the current system has been in place since 1954 and was used by the New Communist Government to help develop and make remote regions more productive — a similar program exists to this day in the other remote regions of Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang and has been used throughout China’s history, starting, according to history books, during the Qin Dynasty around the time of Jesus and used regularly in more recent times during the Tang (618–907AD) and Qing (1644 to 1912AD). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xinjiang_Production_and_Construction_Corps

BBC’s presentation of background documents show nothing sinister at all

The report goes on to show satellite images and quotes “independent analysts” but fails at any time in the article to give credit to any analysts. It’s well known that there is only one analyst in the entire world who claims to be an expert on this subject and this is a 23-year-old working with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) called Nathan Ruser. Ruser has never visited China but continues to produce detailed satellite image analyses based on his opinion and supported by work of people using Zenz’s materials. His employer ASPI is a “think tank” which, despite claims of independence was set up by the Australian Government and derives its income from them as well as weapons manufacturers, its largest sponsors include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the US State Department. To date, this writer has been able to find no other analyst who has ever produced an academically peer reviewed paper on these images so we are left with no independent verification except that carried out by the online “Twitter” community and China Global Television Network (CGTN) which have found that many of these alleged camps are debunked as being factories, animal husbandry sites and even 5 star living accommodation or cinema complexes.

The article goes on to state that many people wearing the same colour clothing can be seen entering the complex. The BBC clearly doesn’t realise that this is completely normal in China where workers usually wear a company uniform. The move from a dormitory into the factory and the factory into the canteen in large numbers is also common at shift change and meal times. Any business person who has visited factories in Mainland China will attest to this fact as would any Chinese based reporter, of which the BBC has at least one but his name (Stephen McDonnell) does not appear on this report at all.

Satellite images usually accredited to either ASPI or Nathan Ruser, their employee, not accredited in this article

Once again, we can assume from this that neither Zenz, the source of the material, nor the BBC authors, have the cultural awareness to understand these are not indicators of mass incarceration but normal operational procedures in any Chinese city anywhere in the Mainland. Dormitories and uniforms are unheard of in the UK and elsewhere in the western world but are a normal and routine part of everyday life for hundreds of millions of Chinese workers, most of whom spend weeks, months or even years, living away from home.

The only report contained in this article of any interview with a Uyghur are of an interview with Mahmut (not his real name) a young man who is in an undisclosed European country. Here are more contradictions: Mahmut is in a foreign country, how did he get there? Why is he speaking to the BBC? He tells the BBC that communication isn’t possible with his family and the last communication with them was in 2018. How is it then that he knows enough about this policy which Zenz alleges is a new policy? IF his family have been through this process for over two years, how is it then that this is only coming to light now after Zenz’s latest discovery? All important questions ignored by the BBC.

Many of these interviews we see, come from people who have a story of persecution to tell, yet were freely allowed to leave the country to work or study overseas. Most claim to have left before the “clamp-down” yet seem to be bristling with tales of persecution through a clamp-down. To the critical observer, this just doesn’t add up. Xinjiang is a region that has, by the admission of the National Endowment for Democracy, been funded by them in order to bring democracy and human rights to the region. There were terrorists in the region (ETIM is still defined as a terrorist group by the United Nations despite being delisted by the USA). Xinjiang has been a relatively unstable region funded and supported by outside influencers. So, a person who gives an alias, in another country which is undefined might well be such a terrorist, certainly, if he’s done nothing wrong, there is no reason to fear returning home or even contacting his family.

Not raised as anything other than an aside in this article is the discussion around poverty alleviation. A world-renowned and well-respected effort by the Chinese government which recently claimed the first milestone of lifting every Chinese citizen out of extreme poverty and continues to move forward towards the goal of bringing China into a “moderately prosperous society”. In doing so, the article grudgingly concedes, the policy has lifted 20% of the population of Xinjiang out of poverty, with only 1% remaining. This could not be achieved without the existence of the Construction Corps but further, it also needs international financial support (supplied by the World Bank, who visit Xinjiang regularly) and the active participation of local people.

The final segment of the report discusses a small, not for profit group, called “the Better Cotton Initiative” (BCI) which certifies cotton as being sustainably and ethically produced. The article quotes a senior person from this organisation who states that BCI has ceased to offer certification due to the concerns of forced labour and human rights abuses. The authors completely fail to point out that the concerns were not about what was happening in China where they have had many years of successful relationship with Xinjiang authorities. Viewing their own website, a statement posted on 21st October 2020 demonstrates clearly that, for many years BCI has worked hand in hand with Xinjiang and the Construction Corp:

“BCI has, for the past eight years, trained Chinese farmers, including Uyghur and Han farmers in the XUAR, on practices that cover our seven core principles on more sustainable cotton production. These include minimising the harmful impact of pesticides and crop protection practices, promoting water stewardship, caring for health of soil, using land responsibly, preserving cotton fibre quality and promoting decent work”

A later paragraph is even more damning for the BBC’s narrative as is shows BCI stopped working with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, not because of these allegations but because of the Sanctions imposed by the USA due to these allegations. Therefore, continuing to work in Xinjiang with the Construction Corps would have involved them breaking US law and incurring sanctions of their own:

“Among a variety of factors that contribute to a challenging operating environment is the recent sanctions order issued by the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets (OFAC) banning transactions with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and its majority-owned subsidiaries. In the past, XPCC had been a BCI Member and Implementing Partner…”

https://bettercotton.org/bci-to-cease-all-field-level-activities-in-the-xinjiang-uyghur-autonomous-region-of-china/

Please note the last paragraph, not because of concerns relating to forced labour, but concerns relating to US sanctions

The statement has since been removed from BCI’s website

Also not mentioned in the BBC article at all are some very interesting facts: There are a huge range of international companies with a large presence inside Xinjiang and these continue to operate without any concerns of forced labour. Many of Forbes Fortune 500 are represented, these are household names such as PepsiCo, Exxon, CocaCola and more. This site lists 57 of the top 500 companies in the world which operate inside of Xinjiang: https://jessicachinafile.github.io/XJcompanies.html.

However, there is one company that it would have been easy to seek out for an alternative point of view. the Esquel Group, One of the world’s largest producers of cotton clothing. Their website indicates that they plan to continue operating in Xinjiang, despite US sanctions because they see no evidence of forced labour. They’ve made massive investments in facilities, training and the local people and have committed to many further improvements: https://www.esquel.com/esquels-commitment-xinjiang Somehow, the BBC neglect to mention this massive (35,000 employees) organisation which should be an integral part of this story as it’s one of the largest users of Xinjiang Cotton in the world.

In a further effort to keep the balance of reporting on the BBC side of a narrative that paints China in poor light, the BBC fails to point out some very important information. An environment of growth, increased GDP, regional profitability and sustained poverty alleviation policies would not, in fact, could not be fostered in a region suffering enforced or slave labour, massive human rights abuses with a begrudgingly servile community subjected to authoritarian conditions or mass incarcerations. Infrastructure investments and international cooperation wouldn’t work for the same reasons. Yet, the two regions in China that lead the recovery and advancement of GDP growth are Xinjiang and Tibet: http://www.china.org.cn/business/2020-07/30/content_76328595.htm

In conclusion, this is article is erroneous, misleading and damaging because it comprises of misunderstandings of the culture of migrant work, dormitory conditions and use of uniforms. Further misunderstandings of the historical, and continuing, importance of China’s Production and Construction Corps for regional development. It shows a complete disregard of the program which has lifted many out of abject poverty by creating work opportunities for rural residents. There is a lack of, on the ground, reporting or interviewing of any subject(s) who might provide a balanced view of life in Xinjiang.

The authors use exiles with an agenda to support their narrative whilst heavily and naïvely relying on the opinions of a religiously bigoted man with a stated mission to destroy China, a man who is supported and financed by both their own organisation and a foreign government. They use unsourced, uncredited and incorrectly analysed satellite images apparently presented by a major player in the military industrial complex, an organisation that makes its entire living creating a perception of a dangerous China.

Furthermore, the article ignores the many international organisations who are successfully working and currently investing in Xinjiang and finally, the most compelling reason why anyone might doubt the veracity of the article is that it completely fails to mention the sanctions imposed by the USA, and not any actual human rights issues, as being the most important reason why the one organisation they interviewed stated they were no longer prepared to work in the region.

I’m British born Australian citizen. I live in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write about China experiences on and off my bike