Is Apple Lobbying Against Uyghur Human Rights?

Tim Cook in China

Disclosure reports required by Congress show that Apple Inc. hired a firm to lobby on its behalf with regard to the “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” tech news Web site The Information reported last week.

Whether the company is for or against the legislation is not known.

The bill has 88 co-sponsors, from Democrat “Squad” Congresswomen Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) on the far left, to conservative House Freedom Caucus members Mark Meadows (a former Representative from NC, now President Trump’s chief of staff) and Jody Hice (Ga.) on the right.

The legislation seeks to ensure that goods manufactured in the Xinjiang region of China, where hundreds of thousands of minority Muslim Uyghurs are persecuted and forced to work “at a fraction of minimum wage or without any compensation,” do not enter the United States market.

According to statements of fact in the bill text:

  • “The People’s Republic of China has, since 2017, arbitrarily detained as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs…and members of other Muslim minority groups in a system of extrajudicial mass internment camps, and has subjected detainees to forced labor, torture, political indoctrination, and other severe human rights abuses.”
  • “Forced labor exists…throughout the region, and is confirmed by the testimony of former camp detainees, satellite imagery, and official leaked documents from the Government of…China as part of a targeted campaign of repression of Muslim ethnic minorities.”
  • “Audits and efforts to vet products and supply chains in the…region are unreliable due to the extent forced labor has been integrated into the regional economy, the mixing of involuntary labor with voluntary labor, the inability of witnesses to speak freely about working conditions given government surveillance and coercion, and the incentive of government officials to conceal government-sponsored forced labor.”
  • “The Department of State’s June 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report found that ‘Authorities offer subsidies incentivizing Chinese companies to open factories in close proximity to the internment camps, and local governments receive additional funds for each inmate forced to work in these sites at a fraction of minimum wage or without any compensation.’”

Investigative efforts in recent months have found that Apple has utilized Chinese companies that operate in Xinjiang as part of their supply chain. A report released in March by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute determined that at least two manufacturers of Apple parts use forced Uyghur labor: BOE Technology, which makes LCD screens, and O-Film, which makes cameras and lenses.

According to an article in The Independent, based in part on the ASPI report:

“The Chinese government is now exporting the punitive culture and ethos of Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps’ to factories across China,” said Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, the study’s lead author.

In some cases, they found evidence that U(y)ghurs were transferred directly from internment camps to factories.

“For the Chinese state, the goal is to ‘sinicise’ the U(y)ghurs; for local governments, private brokers and factories, they get a sum of money per head in these labour transfers,” Ms Xu said.

The Independent visited the region, and one fruit seller told its reporter, “Everyone knows they did not come here of their own free will. They were brought here.”

Investigative reports of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang by the Associated Press in 2018 and 2020 had similar findings, with employees at an O-Film factory in the southern city of Nanchang who “weren’t allowed out unaccompanied and were required to attend political classes.”

At the time of the ASPI report’s release, the Cupertino, Calif. company said in a statement: “Apple is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. We have not seen this report but we work closely with all our suppliers to ensure our high standards are upheld.” And the company said in its May “Supplier Responsibility Report” that 82% of suppliers were “high performers” and the “low performers” fell to a record of below 1%.

Communist China is sensitive to the scrutiny. The country’s top propaganda mouthpiece, Zhao Lijian (who accused the U.S. Army of being the origin of COVID-19), said the treatment of the Uyghurs is for “counter-terrorism” and “de-radicalization” purposes.

“Such measures are taken in accordance with law and have produced good outcomes and won approval and support of all ethnic groups living in Xinjiang,” he said. “All the students receiving education and training for de-radicalisation purposes have graduated, found stable jobs with the help of the Government and are living a happy life.”

It’s possible Apple hired its lobbyist on Congress’s “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act” to help strengthen worker protections, but given its history of coziness with the communist Chinese government, that would take some convincing.

Conservative news site The National Pulse reminded its readers this week how a 2015 visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Microsoft’s headquarters drew many top Big Tech CEO’s, including Apple’s Tim Cook, who the New York Times said fawned over the communist leader. After posing for a picture with him, the Times said Cook was “impressed” and, with a smile, inquired, “did you feel the room shake?”

And as National Legal and Policy Center has reported many times in recent years, Apple has repeatedly capitulated to ChiCom demands that it adjust or remove features on its products. As RealClearInvestigations summarized earlier this week:

In years past, Apple has removed an app that carried news of the Hong Kong demonstrations; it pulled another enabling access to the New York TimesChinese-language website; and yet another for a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, that allows a way around China’s internet “great firewall.” In 2016, it removed from the Hong Kong version of Apple Music a song containing a reference to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, public mention of which is forbidden in China.

Meanwhile a report this week about Apple’s “sustainability” goals and its new “Racial and Equity Justice Initiative,” led by former Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, talk a lot about carbon dioxide “neutrality” and fixing racism in the U.S., but mentions nothing about Chinese human rights abuses.

Watchdog groups and the proposed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act note it is almost impossible to verify whether China is cleaning up its act in Xinjiang.

The recent evidence of Cook’s and Apple’s interactions with communist leadership make an unconvincing case that their lobbyist on the bill seeks greater accountability for those who are abused in Xinjiang.