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A Chinese national flag near office buildings in Shanghai, China on April 14, 2016.

Andy Wong/The Associated Press

A Canadian company that operates a large solar farm in China’s western Xinjiang area has denied the existence of forced labour in its supply chain, and says the international spotlight on conditions in the region hurts local Muslims by making companies more reticent to hire them.

Canadian Solar’s 100-hectare solar farm near Tumxuk is situated in Xinjiang, a region that has come under intense scrutiny after years of government policies that have included forcibly indoctrinating large numbers of people and, Western researchers and governments say, subjecting them to forced labour. Many are ethnic Uyghurs, a minority Muslim group the Chinese government has accused of harbouring extremism.

But no Uyghurs are employed at the 30-megawatt Canadian Solar operation, which the company calls by its Chinese name, Tumushuke, according to Isabel Zhang, the company’s Suzhou-based associate director for investor relations and strategic analysis.

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Canadian firms operate in China’s Xinjiang region

Canadian Solar employs one person at Tumxuk and six subcontractors who work in operations and maintenance. “All of them are ethnic Han,” Ms. Zhang said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. Han are the majority group in China that make up more than 90 per cent of the population.

Canadian Solar does not “support forced labour or engage in forced labour,” she said, nor is it “aware of any forced labour in our company or the whole supply chain.”

The Chinese government, too, denies the use of forced labour in Xinjiang, saying workers in Xinjiang sign contracts.

And Ms. Zhang said international attention to the issue stands to hurt, rather than help, people in the region.

“Certainly the media narrative is not helpful for companies that don’t support forced labour, that wouldn’t engage in forced labour – because we would really think twice if we are employing Uyghur labour,” she said, adding, “in a way, that’s actually bad for the Uyghur ethnicity.”

Evidence for involuntary employment in Xinjiang come from numerous official documents about transfers of “rural surplus labourers” as well as the existence of manufacturing plants alongside, and sometimes inside, fenced detention facilities.

Indicators of forced labour have prompted the U.S. to ban all imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang, and to sanction companies and industrial parks. The U.S. National Security Council has accused Xinjiang of employing “modern-day slavery.” As the Trump administration wound down earlier this month, the U.S. State Department accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang.

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Canada has said it will require a “Xinjiang Integrity Declaration” from companies seeking federal trade commission assistance in China. Ottawa has also released a business advisory warning that companies face both legal risk and “reputational damage related to their supply chains if it is discovered that they are sourcing from entities that employ forced labour.”

Canadian resources companies have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Xinjiang. Among them is Dynasty Gold Corp., which confirmed it has invested more than US$12-million into a gold mine in Karamay.

The company is now engaged in a legal fight over its ownership over the property, but said in a statement that, during its development, “the company employed over 150 workers and support staff at its peak, where equitable compensation was provided to all. Many ethnicities, including Uyghur, were represented in all ranks of the work force. All protocols and cultural practices were followed, including special holidays for religious practice.”

In interviews, Uyghurs have described being forced to work, often for little money, at menial jobs out of keeping with their own skills.

Canadian Solar does not have any policies on hiring Uyghurs, Ms. Zhang said. Nor does the company have any immediate plans to divest from an operation it has maintained for what Ms. Zhang called commercial reasons. “We are certainly looking at our supply chain and really evaluating our options,” she said.

Cheap electricity has made Xinjiang an important lynchpin in the global solar industry, attracting large-scale manufacturing of photovoltaic-grade polysilicon, a primary material in solar cells. China makes more than 70 per cent of the world’s polysilicon for solar panels, and more than half of China’s output comes from Xinjiang.

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Four of the world’s top six polysilicon manufacturers operate in Xinjiang – and all have ties to forced labour, a report from consultancy Horizon Advisory has found. Those companies “appear actively to participate in the resettlement of ethnic Uyghurs from poor areas of Xinjiang” and “contribute to and implement ‘re-education programs that impose political and military training on resettled populations,” Horizon found.

Among them is GCL Poly, whose Xinjiang subsidiary has reported accepting more than 60 so-called “surplus labourers.” GCL did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2019, GCL said it had signed a major agreement to supply four photovoltaic companies, including Canadian Solar.

Ms. Zhang said the company doesn’t believe “there is forced labour in our industry.”

However, Canadian Solar has “recently” begun working with polysilicon makers to investigate and develop “auditing processes for our supply chain, and certifications,” she said. She would not say when that work might produce results.

Numerous international audit groups have said publicly they will no longer work in Xinjiang, where authorities have used tools of surveillance and law enforcement to interfere with visits by outsiders.

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“I would have very little confidence that you could have an independent vetting authority on the ground at this point,” Horizon co-founder Nathan Picarsic said in an interview.

Horizon has not documented “direct indicators” of Canadian Solar using forced labour, he said.

But “denial of potential for forced labour throughout the supply chain, I think at this point defies belief. And if they want to be reiterating the Chinese Communist Party’s line on this, that seems like an uncomfortable position to be in over the long term.”

Seeking to create a certification for companies with supply chains in Xinjiang to ensure no forced labour is “extremely irresponsible,” because it risks creating a veneer of legitimacy in a region where it is the government itself – rather than a few bad corporate actors – that has organized labour violations, said Adrian Zenz, a U.S.-based scholar and senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who has written extensively on forced labour.

“If you have a totalitarian state, there is no safe context where Uyghurs can be interviewed,” he said, adding that the idea of a polysilicon certification “disregards or fails to understand the context we’re talking about there – and is morally irresponsible.”

Canadian Solar’s Ms. Zhang said the company also has no knowledge of whether the electricity it generates has powered facilities used to forcibly indoctrinate Uyghurs. China does not allow private direct electricity sales, and anything generated from the Tumxuk project “is fed directly into the China state grid,” Ms. Zhang said.

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The Tumxuk solar project is located a few kilometres from a vocational training centre, whose course of study includes 126 hours a year of “moral and practical” classes in subjects such as history and religious unity.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also used satellite imagery and government documents to identify five facilities for forcible indoctrination and detention around Tumxuk, which has a population of 250,000. The nearest is 2,500 metres from a solar installation. With watchtowers and internal fencing, it is “a very large facility of at least 20 wings under construction as of May 2020,” ASPI reports.

The facility’s perimeter wall, studded with watchtowers, extends roughly 600 metres alongside the main route from the Tumxuk solar site into the city’s urban area.

But Canadian Solar is “not aware of any vocational centre,” Ms. Zhang said. “You can tell me that my neighbour is a thief. But I don’t know if my neighbour is a thief or not.”

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