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Academic faces Chinese lawsuit for exposing human rights abuses in Xinjiang

Researcher Adrian Zenz at a 2019 panel on China’s human rights abuses, organized by the Hudson Institute in Washington. (Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Beijing has targeted a high-profile U.S.-based researcher whose work has been critical to exposing human rights abuses in China’s northwest, with state media reporting he is being sued by companies in the Xinjiang region.

In a telephone interview from his home in Minnesota on Tuesday night, Adrian Zenz said he believed the lawsuit was a sign that U.S. economic sanctions on the region were having a significant effect. He said Beijing was probably seeking to create a chilling effect on other researchers doing similar work.

“It is the first admission that they really are suffering major economic losses,” Zenz said. ­“Suing an academic — there is an element of desperation in there.”

The lawsuit comes as Zenz and other researchers have been building a case that Beijing’s treatment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang meets the definition of “genocide” under the Geneva Conventions.

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The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Xinjiang over the past year in response to evidence documented by researchers, including Zenz, of a mass campaign of detention and forced labor targeting Muslim Uyghurs in the region. The sanctions include a blanket ban on cotton from the region, which accounts for 87 percent of the cotton grown in China.

Zenz, who is German, began researching conditions in Xinjiang several years ago as an independent scholar, and since 2019 as a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization.

Chinese state media outlet Tianshannet reported late Monday that unnamed companies had filed a lawsuit in Xinjiang against Zenz. China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed it on Tuesday.

“Many companies and residents in Xinjiang suffered heavy losses after Zenz’s rumor of ‘forced labor’ came out of nowhere,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine briefing on Tuesday. “They detest and abhor such malicious smearing acts.”

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Zenz does not really have to worry about the lawsuit if he stays out of China, said Donald Clarke, a law professor at George Washington University. But he may have to hire a lawyer if the Xinjiang companies try to seek overseas enforcement of a judgment against him.

“He would have to get a lawyer to make these arguments, which points up the real threat of lawsuits like this: their capacity to harass,” Clarke wrote on the China Collection blog.

Tianshannet said the companies that filed the lawsuit were damaged by Zenz’s “rumors” of forced labor in the region and demanded he apologize, restore their reputations and compensate for their losses. More companies and individuals may join the lawsuit, Tianshannet said.

Zenz was among more than 50 contributors to a lengthy report laying out the argument for a designation of genocide, which was released Tuesday by the Newlines Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

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