US-based academic faces lawsuit for research into Uighurs
The reported lawsuit, which the Chinese government has said it supports, appears to be a new way to attempt to silence scholars and critics abroad, experts said.
Chinese official media said this week “a number of enterprises and individuals” in Xinjiang “have directed lawyers to sue German national Adrian Zenz”, the official Global Times newspaper and China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported on Tuesday without naming the companies or individuals.
The companies and individuals are said to have filed a civil lawsuit with a local court in Xinjiang, demanding that Zenz apologise, restore their reputation and compensate them for their losses.
“Local people said that Zenz spread ‘forced labour’ and other rumours related to Xinjiang, which damaged their reputation and caused them to suffer economic losses,” official media said.
Zenz, formerly from the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal in Germany but now a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in the US, and other academics and journalists have written several hard-hitting reports since 2018 based on satellite imagery and official Chinese documents on the treatment of Uighurs, including documenting rights violations and the detention of up to a million Uighurs in huge camps in Xinjiang.
Mass internments in Xinjiang are believed to have begun in 2017. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied such reports, referring to the camps as “re-education centres”.
Sheena Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has researched censorship and self-censorship among China academics at overseas universities, said “a lawsuit vs a researcher in a Chinese court is a new tactic” in China’s policing of the boundaries of academic research.
Greitens said via Twitter that she was interested in who claims damages and how, “but [the] bigger issue is a potential deterrent effect on academic research”.
More than 570,000 Uighurs have been pressed into forced labour in Chinese cotton fields, which are a major supplier to the Western textiles industry, according to a research by Zenz published in December by the Washington-based think tank, the Center for Global Policy. Zenz said his research was based on Chinese official documents available online.
“Anybody who cares or who claims to have anything ethical in their business and supply chains has to divest,” Zenz said in December, referring to the textile industry’s sourcing of Xinjiang cotton. Xinjiang produces a third of China’s cotton.
Zenz also published a report last week based on previously untranslated documents in Chinese including the so-called Nankai Report, written in 2019 by three academics at Nankai University’s China Institute of Wealth and Economics, including the institute’s dean.
The Nankai Report is unprecedented in its details, according to Zenz, and implicitly reveals the impact of state coercion from the Nankai researchers’ own field work and surveys. The report talks about security guards accompanying the Uighur labourers, the labour recruitment quota set by the government, and other details in one document.
“The authors’ access to government information and relevant sites was privileged, far exceeding that which could be expected by regular academics,” Zenz noted. Zenz said his assessment on forced labour was supplemented by other reports from Chinese academics and former senior government officials.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative on 1 March said US President Joe Biden’s administration had made it a top priority to address the abuses of China’s forced labour programme targeting Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The previous US administration of former president Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Chinese companies acquiring US technology, saying they were complicit in human rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang. Other sanctions were imposed on Chinese government officials and a major government department in Xinjiang.
Chinese government supports legal action
In a 9 March press conference, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, indicated that the government supported the private legal action against Zenz.
“Many companies and residents in Xinjiang suffered heavy economic losses after Zenz’s rumour of ‘forced labour’ came out of nowhere,” Zhao said, describing Zenz’s reports as “malicious smearing tactics”. China’s official media have frequently sought to discredit Zenz as a Christian “religious extremist” and “pseudo-researcher”.
“Their decision to seek legal redress against Zenz reflects a stronger awareness among the Chinese citizens to safeguard their rights through the law. We support this,” Zhao added.
Zenz has said it “seems that the lawsuit threat is part of a well-prepared propaganda offensive”.
He told the Washington Post newspaper this week: “It is the first admission that they really are suffering major economic losses” in China, adding that the lawsuit against him in China shows that US sanctions are beginning to bite.
Jurisdiction and arbitrary detention
Donald Clarke, a law professor specialising in Chinese law at the George Washington University Law School in the US, said in a blog post that jurisdiction for the lawsuit would first have to be established for any case involving Zenz, a foreigner living outside China with no connection to China.
Since the lawsuit reportedly seeks damages, arguably it could only apply to Zenz’s assets in China, and he has none. But Clarke also raised important issues of arbitrary detention which could affect other academics.
“People with their assets in the US do not, I think, need to be seriously concerned about this kind of lawsuit. They do, of course, need to be concerned about going to China, because they can be prevented from leaving the country until they pay off the judgment. But if they have already drawn the attention of the Chinese authorities to this extent, they shouldn’t be going in the first place, regardless of whether someone has sued them.
“Moreover, at least in this kind of case they’ll know they’re a target. You can be kept from leaving the country even before a judgment issues against you, merely because you have been sued. You might not even have received notice; the first time you find out is when you show up at the airport and can’t get on your plane.”