The decades of ASPI: “Uighurs for sale”

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ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series reviews the work of ASPI since its inception in August 2001.

The most widely read study ever produced by ASPI is Uyghurs for sale:“Re-education”, forced labor and surveillance beyond Xinjiang.

First published in March 2020 (with continuous additions and updates since), the ASPI International Cyber ​​Policy Center report had received nearly half a million unique pageviews and uploaded in June 2021.

Lead author Vicky Xiuzhong Xu wrote:

The Chinese government has facilitated the massive transfer of Uyghur citizens and other ethnic minorities from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor, Uyghurs work in factories that are part of the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the tech, apparel and automotive industries, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.

The report estimates 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 actual figure was probably much higher:

In factories far from their homes, they usually live in separate dormitories, undergo organized Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are under constant surveillance, and are prohibited 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 aimed to erode and redefine the culture of Uyghurs and other Turkish-speaking communities to make these cultural traditions subordinate to the “Chinese nation,” Nathan Ruser reported:

Using satellite imagery, we estimate that around 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65% of the total) have been destroyed or damaged due to government policies, mainly since 2017. It is estimated that 8,500 have been completely demolished and , for the most part, the land on which these razed mosques once stood remains vacant. An additional 30% of important Islamic sacred sites (shrines, cemeteries and pilgrimage routes, many of which are protected by Chinese law) have been demolished across Xinjiang, mainly since 2017, and an additional 28% have been damaged or altered from one way or another.

Along with other coercive efforts to reorganize Uyghur social and cultural life by transforming or eliminating Uyghur language, music, homes and even diets, Chinese government policies are actively erasing and modifying key elements of their tangible cultural heritage.

Apple Inc. has severed ties with Chinese component supplier Ofilm over its use of forced labor. Ofilm had to sell its factory and saw its share price drop.

French prosecutors have opened an investigation into four major fashion retailers suspected of profiting and covering up “crimes against humanity” by using forced Uyghur labor. The investigation follows a lawsuit against the companies by human rights groups and a Uyghur woman who said she was jailed in Xinjiang. The lawsuit was largely based on the ASPI report.

The ASPI may indicate a direct impact on policies beyond Australia. Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2019 that directly cited CPIC 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 labor and other human rights issues. human rights, disinformation, critical infrastructure and the recruitment of talent focused on science and technology.

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

Another site, Mapping the chinthe giants of technology have, traces the overseas expansion of major 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 accompanying research papers fill a “policy gap by strengthening understanding of the global trajectory and impact of China’s largest companies working on the internet, telecommunications, AI , surveillance, e-commerce, finance, biotechnology, big data, cloud computing, smart city and social media sectors ”.

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

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 use this 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 about getting back to basics and focusing on political influence, both in Australia and around the world. Cave sums up the philosophy:

The collapse of traditional media has led many think tanks across the world to fill this void by producing large volumes of opinion and analysis. But at the end of the day, the opinion and analysis may be contradicted by the next person with a different opinion. The real value of a think tank lies in original, empirical, data-driven research.

The withering away of old business models for the news media means fewer resources for investigative work and getting the “facts”. A think tank can conduct the investigation, accumulate expertise, and spend time recouping some of the work once done by journalism. The ICPC uses its tools to amass facts in the form of data – a modern version of the former editor’s injunction for hard facts and hard news.

The Hanson-Cave approach brought together key elements:

  • find and hire young, emerging talent to learn open source intelligence skills, 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 disseminating research that have taken a more global approach
  • hire people with a more diverse mix of skills and experiences, including early Chinese linguists and ASPI’s first indigenous person.

The bets paid off.

Within a few years, the growth of ICPC had doubled the membership of ASPI, including one of the largest Chinese teams in the world of think tanks.

The themes worked on by the center have been broadened and new teams have been formed around information and disinformation operations; foreign interference; work on opening careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for Indigenous Australians; critical technologies; and building cyber capacity. Much of the work has an Indo-Pacific setting.

By 2020, ICPC had produced ASPI’s 20 most read reports, attracting hundreds of thousands of views from the US, China, UK, Europe, India, from Japan and Canada, in addition to Australia. It is the work of a center of around thirty people in mid-2021.

From the book on the first 20 years of the institute: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001-2021.


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