By Alex Willemyns and Nuriman Abdureshid
Hundreds of major U.S. companies may be unwittingly producing goods using gold that was mined using the forced labor of Uyghurs in China’s far-west Xinjiang region, according to a new report.
The report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, or C4ADS, also says financial firms including Vanguard, Fidelity, JPMorgan Chase and Blackstone have led Americans to invest in Chinese companies operating Xinjiang-based gold mines through their index funds.
Amid widespread reports of forced Uyghur labor in China, there has been “insufficient attention” paid to mining in Xinjiang, says the report, which was released Wednesday. That is despite mining accounting for 43% of Xinjiang’s economic output, it says, and the region itself being a leading producer of China’s coal, gas, gold, copper and iron.
The report focuses on gold in particular, and says four of China’s 10 largest gold companies operate in Xinjiang, a far-west region where the U.S. government says a genocide against Uyghurs is occuring through forced sterilization, assimilation, imprisonment and slave labor.
Gold produced by those mines and others in Xinjiang, C4ADS says, “may be entering the United States and global supply chains of major retailers,” calling for brands “to conduct better due diligence to ensure they are not buying [Xinjiang-origin] gold or other minerals.”
American companies are banned by the 2021 Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act from importing any goods produced in Xinjiang unless they can prove forced labor was not used, which the C4ADS report notes is “an impossibility given restricted access” to the region.
C4ADS notes that both the Good Delivery Lists of the London Bullion Market Association and Responsible Mineral Initiative have certified the companies, which trade gold on larger exchanges that expose them to global markets, as being compliant with human right standards.
But it says there is evidence they in fact use forced Uyghur labor.
For one, the companies utilize “job placement” programs for Uyghurs run by the government, which finds jobs for Uyghurs at companies run by Han Chinese that “cannot be freely refused” by the Uyghurs.
The companies also openly participate in the government’s “forced assimilation practices,” the report says, and have even been feted by authorities for playing a proactive role in forced assimilation.
Despite this, hundreds of American companies have reported supply-chain exposure to the four companies under laws that force companies to report to regulators the refineries from which they source gold.
Mattel, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Home Depot, Apple and Tesla are among 397 companies that have reported exposure to Zijin Mining. American Eagle, Sony and Amazon, meanwhile, are among 399 companies with reported exposure to Shandong Gold.
There’s also T-Mobile, General Motors, Hasbro and Columbia Sportswear, who are among 409 companies who have reported exposure to Zhaojin Gold, and Ford, Dolby, Best Buy and Kohl’s, who are among 277 with reported exposure to Lingbao Gold.
Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy told Radio Free Asia he could not comment on the specifics of the report before reading it, but pointed to Apple’s 2023 supply chain progress report, which says “Apple does not tolerate forced labor” and works with third-parties to monitor its suppliers.
Leahy added the London Bullion Market Association, which compiles the Good Delivery List, recently evaluated claims against Zijin Mining.
“They investigated them, and they didn’t find anything on them, so they remain on the LBMA Good Delivery List,” he said, adding Apple would not work with them otherwise. “We’re very forthcoming about our zero tolerance for any forced labor anywhere in our supply chain.”
RFA also reached out to T-Mobile, Mattel and Starbucks about their due diligence measures, but did not receive a response.
In their report, C4ADS notes the “exposure” to the mines in question is reported to U.S. regulators by the companies using “standardized language” that denotes the mere possibility of gold being sourced from them, and does not necessarily mean the gold was in fact used.
“However, the risk of exposure to [Xinjiang] gold for any company sourcing from China is obvious,” it says. “There is a moral, legal, and regulatory need for companies to conduct better due diligence to ensure they are not buying [Xinjiang] gold or other minerals.”
It’s also not only supply chains where gold mined by Uyghur slaves may have been financially supported by American consumers.
C4ADS also notes that while goods produced in Xinjiang are explicitly prohibited from entering the United States, “investment in companies registered in or manufacturing in the Uyghur region is not.”
That means many U.S. financial institutions offering index funds that target emerging markets, or even the Chinese market specifically, have included the stocks of gold companies operating in Xinjiang.
“Many Chinese mining companies with mines in [Xinjiang] are publicly traded,” it says, and investors “may be unwittingly putting their money into companies complicit in the repression and exploitation of the Uyghur region through investment products like index funds.”
Zijin Mining, Shandong Gold and Zhaojin Mining, the report says, “have all been included in various investment funds offered by Vanguard, Fidelity, Blackstone, WisdomTree, USAA, JPMorgan Chase, and many others,” as well as in basic retirement funds.
Call for boycott
Ilshat Hassan Kokbore, the vice president of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress, told RFA that Uyghurs had for decades been forced to do dangerous mining work for China, beginning with the mining of uranium he said had given many of the victims cancer.
“The U.S. government has sanctioned many Chinese companies implicated with Uyghur forced labor, but not many mining companies are among those sanctioned,” Kokbore said, adding many Uyghurs are now forced to mine lithium used for batteries in high-end technology.
He called for regulatory intervention but also for brands to voluntarily increase due diligence to avoid buying Uyghur-mined minerals, which he said would reduce the profitability of Uyghur slave labor.
“If American corporations like Apple and Tesla also boycott these products made by Uyghur forced labor, it will have a huge impact on China to stop the atrocities against Uyghurs,” he said.