Content warning: Mentions of violence and discrimination
Divest McGill’s recent occupation of the McCall MacBain Arts Building has served as a reminder of the controversy surrounding McGill’s investments in fossil fuels. The McGill Tribune’s investigation into other investments within McGill’s $1.9-billion endowment fund reveals the university’s connection to companies aiding or complicit in the Uyghur genocide in China. McGill has invested over $15 million in Chinese government bonds, organizations contributing to mass surveillance, and businesses exploiting Uyghur labour. The university has millions invested in Chinese state-owned enterprises and businesses operating in East Turkestan.
The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority with a population of around 12 million, living mostly in East Turkestan, or the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China. Starting as early as 2009, the Chinese government has been committing acts of violence against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the region, eventually escalating to genocide. Approximately one to three million Muslims have been detained in concentration camps—called “political training centres”—where there have been reports of murder, sexual violence, and forced sterilizations. Additionally, the Uyghur’s Turkic language and culture are being actively diminished through campaigns suppressing Uyghur birth rates, cracking down on theUyghur language, and destroying mosques. China has also expanded technological surveillance in East Turkestan by nonconsensually collecting DNA samples, tracing online messages, and installing millions of surveillance cameras—effectively turning East Turkestan into a police state.
An independent investigation by the Tribune has found that McGill’s investments are implicated in the Uyghur genocide. An independently sourced, interactive investment report last updated Nov. 30, 2021 shows several investments into entities complicit in the genocide, including $1,112,523 in China government bonds. Additionally, McGill has invested $8,954,164 into Tencent, a Chinese technology and entertainment giant, which owns WeChat, the most popular messaging service in China. The Chinese government has complete access to WeChat data and has used it to track, oppress, and arrest Uyghur activists and dissidents. McGill also has $3,603,034 invested in Alibaba, a company that taught its clients how to use its software to detect Uyghur faces. Although it is not confirmed how this technology is being used, it is thought that the Chinese government and corporations use it to surveil Uyghurs in East Turkestan and China. McGill has also invested $511,114 into Li Ning Co., a sportswear company accused of using enslaved Uyghur labour to produce cotton.
Frédérique Mazerolle, a McGill media relations officer, stated in an email to the Tribune that McGill is committed to ethical investments, citing the Board of Governors’ approved changes to their investment policy in 2020 as evidence of this commitment.
“McGill has a long-standing commitment towards sustainability and social responsibility, and as such, our ongoing commitment has already expressed itself in a number of initiatives and measures,” Mazerolle wrote. “Moreover, the Board of Governors has approved in June 2020 changes to the Statement of Investment Policy of the Endowment Fund to include [Environmental, Social, and Governance] (ESG) considerations and a socially responsible investment concrete action plan.”
The McGill Divest for Human Rights coalition, a student organization on campus, is campaigning to divest from companies complicit in the Uyghur genocide. In their report introducing their 2021 campaign, the coalition called for McGill to divest from four companies that the student group identified as exploiting the Uyghur people for labour: Puma, Kohl’s, Footlocker, and Nordstrom. None of these companies are headquartered in China and the group recognizes that their list is non-exhaustive. Rebecca Parry, U3 Arts and a representative from McGill Students for a Free Tibet, a subsidiary organization of Divest for Human Rights, explained the coalition’s divestment strategy and how it is confined by SSMU’s boundaries.
“The companies listed in our report are based off of a list of companies using Uyghur forced labour in their supply chain published by the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour,” Parry wrote. “We chose to maximize our efficacy by taking part in a targeted boycott as opposed to choosing companies at random [….] As to the decision to not call for divestment from specific countries, we are bound by the 2016 Judicial Board Reference re Legality of the BDS Motion and Other Similar Motions which mandates that SSMU cannot take a position against a specific nation.”
In an interview with the Tribune, Jérôme Beaugrand-Champagne, the 2018 Li Ka Shing Professor of Practice at the McGill Faculty of Law and lawyer with over 20 years of experience working in China, argued that divesting from companies with ties to the Chinese government is difficult because the country is so deeply intertwined in global financial markets and supply chains.
“It depends how clean you want to be,” Beaugrand-Champagne said. “We can take a step back and say we won’t invest in companies that are on the international list [of companies exploiting Uyghur labour] […] but if you invest in a company in Shanghai, which is a state-owned enterprise it will be interconnected [with the genocide] [….] The least [McGill] can do is not invest in companies that are doing business in Xinjiang.”
McGill invests in approximately 250 companies based in China, some of which are based in Xinjiang. McGill also invests $1,766, 675 in Zijin Mining Group, which appeared on a list of malign Chinese companies compiled by the US State Department that cooperate with the Chinese military. The company operates a copper mine in East Turkestan that is 32.9 kilometres away from a Uyghur concentration camp.
However, despite his insistence on divestment, Beaugrand-Champagne believes that divesting will not economically hurt the Chinese government enough to discourage their crimes, but that McGill and other institutions must divest anyway.
“They wouldn’t change unfortunately. [China] has sufficient money to run their businesses and the way they structured their stock market makes it very difficult for a foreign company to invest,” Beaugrand-Champagne said. “But morality is very important [….] Unless McGill scraps their code and says we don’t care about freedom of expression then fine, but if you write it down and you hold to those values, you should apply them where you do business.”
Parry, on the other hand, believes that divestment goes beyond a moral duty and that taking money out would put economic pressure on China to stop its human rights abuses.
“Although this may seem like a long shot,” Parry said. “We believe that if the costs of genocide and occupation outweigh the benefits, East Turkestan, Tibet, and all other countries occupied by China will once again be free.”
On top of this, Parry believes that McGill’s endowment fund and investments should reflect the interests of its students.
“The endowment fund is directly comprised of students’ tuition dollars,” Parry said. “McGill has every responsibility to students to invest its money in a way that aligns with student values and priorities [….] Very few students know that their tuition dollars are being used to fund settler-colonialism, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. It’s incredibly disturbing.”
The McGill Muslim Law Students Association (MLSA) is concerned that the Uyghur genocide is not getting the amount of global attention it deserves, considering the scale of the atrocities.
“The global response to the Uyghur genocide is disproportionate given the scale of what is happening,” the MLSA wrote in a statement to the Tribune. “Uyghurs warrant more international attention, more compassion, and more justice.”
Beaugrand-Champagne agreed that the Uyghur genocide is not getting enough attention and that the international response to the genocide has been inadequate. He cited the global sanctions against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine as an example of this hypocrisy.
“We are doing [divestment] with Russia,” Beaugrand-Champagne said. “What’s happening in Ukraine is horrible and horrendous, but there are 1.5 million Uyghurs [interned] and nobody cares. People are like: We don’t know them, we haven’t heard of them, whatever.”
According to The McGill Tribune’s estimates, it is likely that millions more dollars above the 15 million already identified from the endowment fund are contributing to the genocide given how embedded China and East Turkestan are in global financial systems and supply chains, but this has yet to be confirmed at the time of reporting.
A previous version of this article stated that Jérôme Beaugrand-Champagne was a former McGill law professor. In fact, Beaugrand-Champagne was not a former McGill law professor; rather, he was the Li Ka Shing Professor of Practice at the Faculty of Law of McGill University in 2018. The Tribune regrets the error.