Video: 83 Global Brands Tied to Forced Labor in China—Benedict Rogers

January 13, 2021 Updated: January 16, 2021

In China, we are seeing forced televised confessions, a mass surveillance state, the killing of Falun Gong practitioners for their organs, and what many are calling a genocide of the Uyghur people. Eighty-three global brands, including major U.S. companies, are tied to Uyghur forced labor in China.

Over in Hong Kong, 53 pro-democracy activists, lawmakers, and lawyers were arrested on Jan. 6 under the draconian national security law.

Despite all this, the EU recently announced a major trade deal with China.

American Thought Leaders interviews human rights activist and writer Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission, to discuss the commission’s new report: “The Darkness Deepens.”

On Thursday Jan. 14 at 9:00 am, Benedict Rogers will take part in the McDonald Laurier Institute‘s “A Way Forward, Part II: Defending Human Rights In China” panel. You can watch it at this link below:

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Benedict Rogers, it’s so great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Benedict Rogers: Thank you. It’s a great privilege to be with you again.

Mr. Jekielek: Ben, you’ve put out this incredible report, “The Darkness Deepens.” Frankly, it’s one of the most comprehensive reports on human rights in China that I’ve come across, and this is a follow up from your report four years ago that the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission put out, “The Darkest Moment.” Incredible work—for starters, I have to say that. Why don’t you tell me briefly, what were the key most important findings in your mind?

Mr. Rogers: I think the key findings are that in the last four years since that previous inquiry and report, firstly, the situation across the board has deteriorated dramatically further, and I almost didn’t think that was possible because as you’ve just said, the report four years ago was called, “The Darkest Moment.”

In other words, the situation was pretty terrible then. But across the board, things have worsened significantly. We’ve seen the dismantling of democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong; we see what people are increasingly recognizing as a genocide of the Uyghurs.

Those two issues have had quite a lot of attention and deservedly so, but what we found is that situation for Christians, for Falun Gong practitioners, for the situation in Tibet, for human rights defenders, bloggers, lawyers, across the board, the situation has worsened significantly. That’s the main finding.

But also, I think the Chinese Communist Party regime is finding new and increasingly brutal forms of repression. The growth of surveillance technology is one example. The use of forced labor, which we call modern day slavery, probably was going on before but it’s certainly much more extensive now. And the use of forced televised confessions and the increasing number of arrests of foreign nationals so it shows that no one is safe from the long arm of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. It’s not just nationals of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] but foreign nationals that have been arrested and jailed, disappeared, forced to confess on national television.

Mr. Jekielek: It seems to me like the Chinese Communist Party is taking advantage of this chaotic situation around the U.S. election to do some bad stuff, so to speak. One of these things is the mass arrests of pro-democracy politicians on January 6. Actually, four guests from this show were among those that were arrested that day. Why don’t you tell me what you think about this, what the realities are, and how things have come since January 6?

Mr. Rogers: The mass arrests of 53 pro-democracy activists were the single largest swoop by the Hong Kong police of activists in Hong Kong in recent memory. Obviously, there have been quite a number of other arrests in previous months, but there’s been nowhere near as large a number in one morning.

Essentially, what they’re charged with is nothing more than the “crime” of having dared to carry out a democratic exercise. They either were candidates or organizers or pollsters in a primary election, something that here in the United States is the absolute norm. But a primary election to choose the candidates for the pro-democracy camp in what should have been the elections to the legislature in Hong Kong [was] of course subsequently postponed using the excuse of the pandemic. But now these individuals have been arrested, charged with subversion under the national security law, for having carried out that exercise last summer to choose their candidates.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s look at the difference from four years ago. How has Hong Kong changed, bottom line?

Mr. Rogers: Bottom line is it’s changed massively. Four years ago, freedom was under pressure. There were signs of erosion and worrying signs of erosion. Today, there is no freedom in Hong Kong.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to the second issue that we discussed. You mentioned this modern day slavery, forced labor. I recently produced a film, a Holocaust documentary, which involved us going to Europe, and one of the things I discovered which I hadn’t realized, actually, entirely, was how important the slave labor of the Jewish people was to the Nazi war machine, so to speak, to the functioning of the Nazi regime. It’s just something that seems to be glossed over because of the horrors of the Holocaust. But I saw that this is something that’s new in your report. You didn’t have a section on modern day slavery in the previous report. Why is this figuring in so prominently now?

Mr. Rogers: I think that a lot more evidence has come to light, and I think the use of slave labor has been much more extensive over the last few years. Crucially, it’s featuring a very significant role in the supply chains of at least 83 or more international brands, companies that consumers will all be familiar with throughout the Western world.

You are right to make the connection with the Holocaust because what’s very significant about this situation is that among religious communities speaking out on the Uyghur situation, it’s actually been the Jewish community that has been taking a lead. The former chief rabbi in my country, the United Kingdom, the current chief rabbi, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish newspaper, and other Jewish groups have really been courageous in making the comparison with the Holocaust, which is a very rare and sensitive thing for the Jewish community to do but they’ve been doing it.

Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t you tell me briefly why that is, and of course, we know some of this but why is that apt in your mind?

Mr. Rogers: I think it’s very apt because many of the hallmarks of the Holocaust are there. Not only the slave labor but evidence of the campaign of forced sterilization, scenes of people with their heads shaved [and] being loaded onto trains, and of course, the extensive concentration camps in the Xinjiang region where it’s said that at least a million, perhaps as many as 3 million, are incarcerated or severely tortured, subjected to sexual violence, and other abuses.

So the parallels really are there with things that we haven’t seen on that scale for a very long time. Of course, we’ve seen, sadly, other genocides over the years and plenty of other mass atrocities in different parts of the world, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite as extensive as this for a long time.

Mr. Jekielek: A Canadian parliamentary committee came up with a genocide designation for what is happening there in Xinjiang to the Uyghur people. I think the State Department in the U.S. is also considering that as we speak. Something that comes to mind when it comes to Xinjiang is the importance or the use of surveillance technology. This is something that also figures prominently in your report and again, this is something that I would love to compare today to four years ago, if you could do that, because it seems to be such a central issue that might not necessarily be obvious to people and playing a key role in this repression that we just discussed.

Absolutely. I think that it was beginning to develop a few years ago, but you’re correct that it didn’t really feature in our previous report, and that shows that it has rapidly developed in the last few years. Key to the development of this have been the Chinese tech companies, well known brands like Huawei and Hikvision, that are directly complicit with creating this Orwellian surveillance state.

The extent of the technology is terrifying: the use of facial recognition technology, of drones, and other artificial intelligence. But that’s also combined with more traditional forms of surveillance that also continue: the use of informants, the CCP sending Han Chinese [CCP] officials to live in the houses of Uyghurs, those Uyghurs that aren’t in the prison camps, to monitor them 24 hours a day. So these crude traditional forms of personal surveillance mixed with the use and development of technology.

The fact that companies that are well known globally now, thankfully, many Western democracies are waking up to the dangers of Huawei and the others, but there are many countries that haven’t woken up to that, and we should not forget that these companies are directly at the heart of this surveillance state.

Mr. Jekielek: This technology, whether it’s Hikvision or Huawei, it’s not just deployed in China and presumably, can be used exactly the same way elsewhere.

Mr. Rogers: That’s exactly right. Firstly, the regime is, of course, transferring this technology to other brutal dictatorships, so that poses a danger in other repressive states. But of course, it can use that technology in Western free societies, and that poses a direct threat to our freedoms.

Mr. Jekielek: One of the areas that you focus on in the report is the forced organ harvesting, this murder for organs business in China. For the uninitiated, we’ve talked about this before. It’s something I’ve reported on since 2006, when we first realized that it was real and not the crazy idea that it sounds like it should be. How has our understanding of the reality of this murder for organs business in China changed over the last four years?

Mr. Rogers: I think it’s changed quite significantly. When we carried out our inquiry in 2016, that was the first time that I was presented with detailed evidence. Obviously the evidence was there prior to that, but it was the first time I’d really encountered it. I would admit that I was probably myself—I didn’t dismiss it—but I was certainly a bit skeptical because the claims were so, so shocking.

But the more I talked to people who had done expert research in this, the more credible I found them to be. So we, in our inquiry in 2016, after hearing it in our first inquiry, we then held a separate second inquiry, specifically on forced organ harvesting. We were, as a commission, convinced by what we heard and came out with a short report and started raising this with the British government and others.

Then of course, there was the China Tribunal chaired by Geoffrey Nice, QC, a man who led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic. [He] knows atrocity crimes when he sees them and is not someone who’s going to be easily persuaded by unconvincing evidence. Plus, I would say about that tribunal, that the panel members were all very distinguished leaders and experts in their field, but none of them were people who had a prior agenda on human rights in China.

In fact, most of them had no prior involvement in China and certainly not with the issue of organ harvesting, or with Falun Gong. They came out with this incredibly strong judgment, convinced that forced organ harvesting continues to happen, and that it’s a crime against humanity. I think that tribunal, although it hasn’t resulted yet in the kind of policy change at a government level that I would hope still to see, I think it has changed the debate. It’s made it much harder for skeptics to dismiss the claims.

We summarize the tribunal judgment in this latest report. We’ll continue to call for international action. I would also say the growing evidence of forced organ harvesting, not only from Falun Gong practitioners, but from Uyghurs and others—I think all of that strengthens the case, and it makes it really irrefutable, or certainly very difficult to refute for someone who’s particularly skeptical.

Mr. Jekielek: Ben, you mentioned you’re an advocate for multilateralism, basically working with some of these international institutions, multiple countries working together to form this united front. One of the things that’s actually mentioned in your report, which I think is incredibly important, is the Chinese Communist Party’s subversion of multilateral institutions like multiple agencies of the UN.

China’s sitting on top of the UN Human Rights Council, which a lot of human rights activists see as a complete affront to the organization. And not the only human rights abuser, I think there’s many, many of them there. Tell me about this. How has China subverted the multilateral organizations? You describe it as the rules-based order in the world. Then we can talk a bit more about what to do.

Mr. Rogers: Well, the subversion is certainly extensive. I don’t have the figures on hand, but a significant number of Chinese Communist Party officials have taken up key positions in the UN bureaucracy, as well as the things you’ve already mentioned, their seats on the Human Rights Council and their influence over the World Health Organization. We’ve seen that in the course of the pandemic, even having within the period that we were carrying out this inquiry or the period that we were looking at, China had the head of Interpol. They managed to just disappear the head of Interpol, which was quite an extraordinary thing.

So it’s definitely extensive. We’ve seen at the UN, for example, China’s influence in being able to veto NGOs [non-government organizations] that it doesn’t like, human rights organizations, from having representative status at the UN.

We’ve seen multiple times, Chinese delegates at the Human Rights Council trying to cut off or silence human rights critics, during the various dialogues that take place between NGOs and member states. We even see intimidation at the Human Rights Council of China-focused human rights groups. The Chinese delegation comes and photographs them or harasses them. These things have been going on for some time.

My own view is two things really. First, that however flawed and bad the system is, it’s in the interest of the free and democratic world to get back in there and take it back and take influence back, rather than just cede that influence to China where they can continue to wreak havoc. That’s not going to be easy, but I think it’s worth trying.

The second thing I would say is that multilateralism shouldn’t be at the expense of unilateral action, where that’s necessary and justified and the only option. In other words, I think I said earlier, it shouldn’t be the lowest common denominator. We should try to work together with allies across free countries, as much as possible, but that shouldn’t excuse the countries from taking their own action, where that’s necessary.

Mr. Jekielek: I have to mention this. We published a report today looking at various FARA filings,  the Foreign Agent Registration Act filings here in the US. Since 2009, there were 120 journalists across 50 news organizations, our journalists found, that were wined and dined by the China United States Exchange Foundation, which is run by a Chinese Communist Party agent, and basically part of the United Front operation to make the western journalists and media as friendly as possible to the regime.

This isn’t just happening in the US, I’m sure. There are other reports of a similar nature. Frankly we’re seeing this kind of thing—this is just the journalism profession. This is across the board in academia, in local government, in national government. You’ve heard about Christine Fang infiltrating congressional offices, it goes on and on. How does the west, the UK, Canada, the US, deal with this ever present infiltration and subversion?

Mr. Rogers: It’s not an easy balance to achieve because, on the one hand, I think we’ve been naive. We’ve had our heads in the sand for too long. That’s how we’re in this situation. On the other hand, we can’t seriously say that we’re going to exclude all Chinese students. Well, we could, but I don’t think it would be the right path to say we’re going to exclude all Chinese students, or we’re going to cut off all ties with China, or we’re going to expel any Chinese person.

The danger with that is it plays into the Chinese regime’s narrative about the West, which is that this is an anti-China or sinophobic attitude. I think we need to be very clear that [it’s] far from being anti-the people of China. I’m deeply pro-China as a country, as a people, as a culture. I’ve spent most of my adult life in and around China, have many Chinese friends. [I] speak a few words of Chinese and write a few Chinese characters, but not much more than that.

The point is, we must send the message to the people of China that we are pro-them, we’re anti-the Chinese Communist Party regime. So to get that message across, and to get that balance, I think we need to navigate this quite carefully. We should look into more stringent background checks and security checks. We should look at whether we have Chinese students studying in our universities who are studying certain disciplines that could be advantageous to the Chinese state in terms of technology and so on.

And crucially, we should look at institutions like the Confucius Institutes and other bodies that are part of the regime’s propaganda apparatus. We should stand up for our values in our academic institutions and other bodies. We will talk to the Chinese, but we should not allow ourselves to be compromised by … funding or entertainment.

I know one or two individuals who on other issues have taken—in other parts of the world—a very good and strong line on human rights, but who happened to have been given an honorary professorship at Beijing University. The moment they’re given that their ego is flattered, and they lose all sense of defending their values. So, we need to be much more robust at resisting those sort of temptations and defend our values.

There’s a lot of thought and detail that needs to go into how to navigate that balance and how to communicate that message that we’re for the people of China. We need to defend our freedoms and national security and stand up for theirs against the Chinese regime.

Mr. Jekielek: Final question: why does it matter to the fellow sitting watching in the UK, sitting watching in the US, sitting watching in Canada, that doesn’t interact with China very much in any way?

Mr. Rogers: I think it matters in a number of ways. First of all, do you really want to be buying clothes or car parts, or computers or telephones that have been made by not just slave labor, but as we’ve talked in this program, people who are in a situation that has parallels with the Holocaust? If we know that’s happening, do we want to be doing that? Most ordinary people anywhere in the free world would answer that question, “No.” Of course, we want our clothes and our computers and so on. But we want them to be made ethically and not by such horrific and extensive slave labor.

Secondly, do we want to defend our freedoms? Do we believe in our liberties? If we do, then we need to recognize that they’re threatened by this regime. They’re threatened by the regime most immediately by infiltration, by the use of technology and surveillance.

But further down the line, if we don’t stand up to what this regime is doing to the Uyghurs, its dismantling of freedom in Hong Kong, its total breach of an international treaty in Hong Kong—if we allow them to get away with breaking international treaties with no consequences— then, not only is Taiwan going to be next, but after Taiwan, they’re not going to stop there. For that reason, it’s in our interest to stand up.

Again, to draw a parallel with the period of history that we’ve touched on a number of times, we see what happens, what the consequences are when we don’t respond early on—Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and then we found ourselves in a world war. Now, I’m neither advocating nor predicting a world war. But I think that history shows the trajectory is there if we allow such a regime to continue on with impunity, and not just with impunity, but with our own complicity. Sooner or later, the consequences are clear, and that’s why we need to act.

Mr. Jekielek: Benedict Rogers, such a pleasure to have you on again.

Mr. Rogers: Thank you very much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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