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This photo taken on Oct. 14, 2018, shows farmers picking cotton in a field in Hami in China's northwestern Xinjiang region.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

An American scholar who studies Chinese repression in the province of Xinjiang is warning Canadians they could be buying clothes made with coerced labour because Beijing is increasingly forcing imprisoned Uyghurs to produce garments.

“I would say that cotton from China should be avoided simply because such a large percentage comes from [the Xinjiang] region and we can’t verify that it’s not being produced by coerced labour,” Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Seattle’s University of Washington, told a University of Ottawa audience Tuesday.

Since 2017, Chinese authorities in the northwestern Xinjiang region have locked up hundreds of thousands of predominantly Muslim people – most of them Uyghurs, a minority group – in forced indoctrination camps as part of what Beijing calls a deradicalization campaign.

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Dr. Byler spoke about Xinjiang at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre, describing the secure industrial complex Beijing has built up and the emerging role of forced labour in the region where more than 80 per cent of China’s cotton originates.

“People are literally being moved from camps into factory spaces adjacent to the camps or sometimes inside the camp space and put to work making garments,” Dr. Byler said.

Dr. Byler’s work from his position at the University of Washington has so upset Chinese authorities that last week the Communist Party’s newspaper The Global Times attacked him and other scholars studying the mistreatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Dr. Byler, a post-doctoral researcher and lecturer, has spent 16 years researching how China has harnessed technology including surveillance equipment, artificial intelligence and software to harass and constrain Uyghurs. All Uyghurs are required to provide fingerprints, blood and DNA samples to Chinese authorities, as well as submit to iris and facial scans so they can be tracked constantly.

Dr. Byler also suggested Canada consider barring Chinese video camera maker Hikvision, as the Americans have done. Washington banned Hikvision from selling to U.S. government agencies because of fears its equipment could be used to spy on Americans, but the company is also supplying gear used to surveil Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

As well, the U.S. scholar said, about 20 to 25 per cent of the world’s tomatoes come from Xinjiang and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, one of the main government entities that runs detention camps for Uyghurs, also produces tomatoes for export that end up in ketchup and tomato sauce around the world.

Last week The Global Times accused Dr. Byler of trying to “galvanize anti-China forces” through his reports and alleged that he is working for a U.S. intelligence agency. Dr. Byler said he has never worked for a government intelligence agency and that some of his work was funded by the New York-based Social Science Research Council, an independent, international, non-profit organization.

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The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Dr. Byler’s work.

Mehmet Tohti, a Uyghur-Canadian activist who was a founding member of the World Uyghur Congress, also spoke, saying about 2,000 Uyghurs now live in Canada and are “totally disconnected from our loved ones and family members” in Xinjiang because of Chinese government interference over the last few years. They can’t telephone them or send text messages or voice messages, Mr. Tohti said. “We don’t know if they are alive or dead.”

Uyghur Canadian dissident Huseyin Celil, perhaps the most widely known resident of Xinjiang among Canadians, was jailed by China in 2007 over the protests of Ottawa and human-rights advocates. He was travelling on a Canadian passport in 2006 when police in Uzbekistan arrested him and sent him to China.

Amnesty International and other human-rights watchdogs have said Mr. Celil should not have been imprisoned because the allegations against him were never substantiated and he was denied a fair trial.

Mr. Tohti argued that Canada’s failure to fight harder for Mr. Celil’s release emboldened the Chinese government and paved the way for Beijing to lock up two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor last year. The detention of these two men is widely seen as retaliation for Ottawa arresting a Chinese tech executive on an extradition request from the U.S. government.

“We silently accepted China’s abduction of a Canadian citizen in 2006 and now China went further.”

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