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Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, on Sept. 4, 2018.

THOMAS PETER/Reuters

Canada and Britain are acting out a “farce” in taking action against forced labour in China, a government spokesman in Beijing said Wednesday, accusing foreign countries of spreading lies.

Evidence of forced labour in China’s western Xinjiang region comes from numerous sources, including Muslims who have been compelled to work in factories, state media reports that indicate former detainees have been put to work, Chinese government quotas for the relocation of workers and even the co-location of industrial parks with prisons and training centres surrounded by electric fencing.

But Beijing, which initially denied the construction of political-indoctrination and skills-training internment centres in Xinjiang before acknowledging their existence, says the human-rights violation does not occur in China – a country where the law requires healthy prisoners to work.

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“There is no forced labour in China, there is no forced labour in Xinjiang,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

China denies the use of forced labour in this industrial park, but won’t let reporters visit. The Globe went anyway

Canada and Britain “have turned a deaf ear to the facts and the truth repeatedly clarified by the Chinese side,” Mr. Zhao said. The measures taken by those two countries against forced labour – which include warning companies about the legal and reputational risks of doing business in Xinjiang – hold “no factual or moral grounds,” he added, and “can only be called a farce staged by a handful of politicians.”

He denied that more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been forced into centres for political indoctrination and training – without offering an alternative figure. Uyghur workers in Xinjiang can choose jobs “of their own volition. They are entitled to sign labour contracts and get reimbursement accordingly. How can you call that forced labour?” Mr. Zhao said.

Uyghurs have described being forced to work at jobs with little relationship to their expertise. Abdulla Tohti Arish, a Uyghur man living in Europe, told The Globe and Mail that his brother, an IT engineer in Xinjiang, was placed first in a garment factory and then a grocery store.

Mr. Zhao accused foreign countries of using the “so-called human-rights issue to discredit China and of taking various measures to crack down on Xinjiang’s companies. This only reveals their malign motives to suppress the development of Xinjiang and interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa echoed Mr. Zhao’s statements and said Canada is “simply not qualified to being a human-rights preacher,” pointing to the country’s “bad record” in its treatment of Indigenous people.

The new Canadian measures rely in part on existing legislation, which bars the import of goods produced through forced labour. Canada is also threatening to withdraw trade commissioner support and export loan financing for companies that operate in Xinjiang without taking adequate measures to ensure their businesses are not built on forced labour or other human-rights violations.

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A new Canadian government advisory warns that “businesses should closely examine potential indicators of forced labour and other abuses, including a lack of transparency on the origins of goods, internment terminology (e.g. education training centres, vocational schools, or boarding schools/kindergartens for children), Xinjiang government incentives and factory locations (e.g. near detention or internment facilities).”

Britain announced similar measures, including the threat of fines unless companies meet new requirements demonstrating their supply chains are free of forced labour.

Satellite images show that 135 detention facilities in Xinjiang hold factories, according to an analysis published by Buzzfeed News.

Officials in the region have designated large numbers of people as “surplus labour” and, under the pretext of a poverty-reduction program, require that at least one person per household be in “stable employment.”

Labour is also an integral part of the Chinese justice system, which in 2018 held 1.7 million people in jail. The country’s prison law says “an able-bodied prisoner must do labour.”

Prisons, it says, “implement the principle of combining punishment with reform and combining education with labour, in order to transform [prisoners] into law-abiding citizens.”

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With reports from Robert Fife and Steven Chase in Ottawa

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