This is part 2 of The Christian Post's series on China's human rights abuses under the spotlight of the Olympic Games and takes a look at accusations that multinational corporations are complicit in such crimes. The series will also feature testimonies from religious groups that are being persecuted under the communist regime. Read part 1, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6 and part 7.
“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, OK?” Golden State Warriors' minority owner and billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya told his co-host, Jason Calacanis, on their Jan. 15 "All-in" podcast. “You bring it up because you really care, and I think it’s nice that you really care. The rest of us don’t care.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stated in its 2021 annual report how the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic minority group native to the Xinjiang (pronounced shin·jaang) province of western China, have faced increasing persecution from the government along with other religious minorities such as Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners.
The report highlighted how the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified at least 380 detention centers across the Uyghur region where members of the predominantly Muslim community are detained for reasons like “wearing long beards, refusing alcohol, or exhibiting other behaviors deemed signs of ‘religious extremism.’”
“Former detainees reported torture, rape, sterilization, and other abuses in custody. Experts raised concerns that the Chinese government’s ongoing actions in Xinjiang could amount to genocide under international law,” the report stated, highlighting the use of Uyghur forced labor in internment and prison camps as well as factories and industrial parks in the region.
An estimated 1 million to 3 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been imprisoned in detention camps throughout western China. Both the Biden and Trump administrations have recognized China's actions against Uyghurs as "genocide." Several countries have also condemned China for human rights violations. As a result, the U.S. and several other nations have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Games that begin Friday.
Still, Palihapitiya defended his now-viral comments that “nobody cares” about what’s happening to the Uyghurs as a “very hard ugly truth.” And when it comes to the business community and the human rights abuses in China, USCIRF Vice Chair Nury Turkel, a Uyghur advocate born in a re-education camp in China in 1970 who fled 27 years ago, says the billionaire’s comments are honest.
“I don’t like to use the word honesty when describing this person and his despicable public admission, but what he’s saying is true,” Turkel told The Christian Post in a recent interview.
“From how much silence and pushback that we’ve been getting from the business community, it is an emblematic problem. It’s just a symptom of broader, bigger issues that as a civilization that we’re dealing with,” he continued. “What we have now is a very vibrant and powerful business lobby, business community, fighting against our own government.”
On Dec. 23, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law. The legislation passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate and builds on previous efforts by the U.S. government to clamp down on forced labor practices and human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The law prohibits all imports from Xinjiang into the U.S. starting June 21, 2022.
Getting to this point, however, was not easy.
Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola were reportedly among major companies and business groups that lobbied Congress to weaken the legislation.
Nike, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Campbell Soup Company, Costco, H&M, Patagonia, the Kraft Heinz Co., Tommy Hilfiger and others were also listed as companies suspected of ties to forced labor in Xinjiang in a March 2020 report from a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
The report cited credible evidence of many products being made with forced labor — yarn, clothing, gloves, bedding, carpet, cotton, cell phones, computer hardware, noodles, cakes, shoes and tea.
Several companies, such as Nike and Apple, denied lobbying against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. But in a letter to Congress in September 2020, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the law “would prove ineffective and may hinder efforts to prevent human rights abuses.”
“Past attempts to utilize domestic U.S. securities law to combat human rights abuses provide a cautionary tale. For example, a well-intentioned effort to resolve abuses related to the mining of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in many cases worsened the situation on the ground in that country,” the business organization wrote.
“The absence of a qualified inspection and audit systems made it nearly impossible for companies to ensure accurate disclosures. This, in turn, caused many companies to implement a de facto embargo against material sourced in the region, which then hurt legitimate miners. At the same time, the original targets of the provision simply shifted their activities to avoid being impacted."
For Turkel, the problem isn’t just with U.S. businesses.
The U.S. was recently joined by Australia, Britain, Canada and Japan in an ongoing diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to protest China's human rights record. Turkel believes the boycott is working to some extent but says more could have been done.
“There should have been more broader, full boycott, more pressure to postpone or relocate. If relocating doesn’t work, [it] would have been an ideal solution to the problem,” he said. “Number one, there is a historic reason. We don’t want, as a civilization, to embolden a dictatorial regime like the one in Beijing to witness us repeat history. The international community apparently has not learned a lesson from the 1936 Nazi Olympics allowing this Olympics in 2022 — the genocide Olympics — to take place.”
Turkel is concerned that no one can guarantee the safety of athletes under China’s current regime.
“It is a diplomatic boycott. We welcome the additional countries announced [last month], but the biggest problem now is who can guarantee the safety of athletes? The athletes have already been told that they should not engage in politics. So when the Chinese make that kind of warning, you cannot ignore it. They mean it,” he said.
“One of the biggest problems that the international community keeps making is ignoring the Chinese warning, Chinese policy statements. [They say], 'Well, it will not happen.' China apologists, policy experts, academics, business leaders never thought, if they could be honest, that China would commit genocide on the world’s watch. And the same is true with Hong Kong. The brutality showed to upend Hong Kong’s democracy is something the people thought would not happen.”
Turkel believes China will go after athletes or businesses that speak out against the human rights abuses. He pointed to athletes like NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom, who has been vocal about the persecution of the Uyghurs. But he said he doesn't have much faith in the business community.
“I don’t hold my breath on the business community’s ability to get out on the right side of history. But athletes might because they are normal human beings just like you and I,” he said.
“We’ve seen the athletes speaking up. … So there is some movement within the sports world, but the business world — the politicians, the consumers — have a lot to catch up with. So I worry about the safety of the athletes taking the risk to go there in the face of the COVID surge, in the face of the naked warning by the Chinese authorities,” Turkel said. “They’ll be monitored. Their phones will be monitored. Their social media will be monitored. … And China will not hesitate to punish anyone regardless of their non-Chinese citizen status.”
How big business influences politics
While big business interests couldn’t stop legislation aimed at addressing China’s persecution of the Uyghurs, their influence is much more substantial in other countries. Turkel is convinced it's a significant reason why more countries haven’t joined the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.
“China has been doing a number of things effectively, much to our dismay and disappointment. Because the civilized world, liberal democracies, are not even investing nearly enough time and energy to push back,” Turkel added.
“So what the Chinese have been doing, if you look at The Global Times statement in defense of Palihapitiya, that there will be consequences. So it is that explicit."
The Global Times is China’s state tabloid. In a Jan. 18 op-ed titled "Biz Quick Take: Scrutiny on billionaire over Xinjiang shows perils of political correctness in US," the editors denounced claims of human rights abuses in Xinjiang as “pure lies” and warned that the “US only will hurt the country itself” by pursuing a politically correct policy against China.
“For anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Xinjiang, the lurid claims of human rights abuses or even ‘genocide’ in the region are pure lies made up by the US government as pretext to crack down on China. The criticism against Palihapitiya has nothing to do with his lack of empathy but with his refusal to observe political correctness and repeat the lies of the US government about Xinjiang without questioning,” The Global Times argued. It also said American businesses are likely to suffer consequences as a result.
"Specifically, US businesses will have a tough time to operate in the Chinese market where they make hundreds of billions of dollars each year, as political correctness pushes them into an impossible position of having to choose between their consumers and their government,” the publication maintained.
“We have already seen the implications in many cases, and more will likely fall into the same trap set up by the US government. The question is, when will US businesses and others stand up and say enough is enough? How much losses are they willing to take before that?”
Turkel insists, however, that these consequences from China are part of a “collaborated, systematic, orchestrated, organized bullying of the business community.”
“They are essentially telling the business community, who told us since China joined the WTO that Americans, we should just sleep at ease at night because the business community has figured out how to deal with China. But guess what? They’re caught in the crossfire,” the official for the independent commission that advises the U.S. government and Congress said.
“Even a [scenario] as major as taking down or making a public statement as H&M, Nike and Intel did, they’re suggesting that no Xinjiang suppliers were met with a state-sponsored boycott, so they backed down,” Turkel said. “There is a collaborated, systematic, orchestrated, organized bullying of the business community that has spent the last two decades to tell the consumer that everything is fine. Guess what? Everything was not fine, and everything is not fine.”
After warning suppliers last month that it had been “required to ensure that its supply chain does not use any labor or source goods or services from the Xinjiang region” following restrictions imposed by “multiple governments,” U.S. microchip maker Intel had to apologize in China after significant backlash.
“We apologize for the trouble caused to our respected Chinese customers, partners and the public. Intel is committed to becoming a trusted technology partner and accelerating joint development with China,” Intel said in a statement.
“If there are any type of human rights violations in Xinjiang … you know, I don’t know. Not my expertise by any means, so I’m not going to judge,” he said.
“The reason being is we have two choices. We can either divorce ourselves from Xinjiang and say, 'No, we’re not going to do anything out there,' or [what] we could do is we can try to understand what’s going on in Xinjiang better. And you know, yes, there may be some factually, I don’t know, I’m not a politician, I’ve never studied any type of aspect."
“I can’t change that," Burton's CEO added. "We’ll focus on what we can change for the better. The people who live in Xinjiang, they’re fabulous people who I’ve met in Xinjiang. And that’s who I know. That’s what I know. And that’s all I can address. And I address that by sharing the fun of snowboarding and going to the mountains together, having a meal together, high-fiving each other after a fun powder run.”
Turkel was not amused by Smith's feigning ignorance about what’s happening in Xinjiang.
“We’ve been fooled. We’ve been used as a tool for these money-making machines. We are addicted to cheap products from China, and I knew it, but most people did not, that we’ve been benefiting from slave labor,” he said. “The United States does not use slavery for making consumer products, [but] China does. So even in a competition aspect, in a basic human rights and religious freedom aspect, this is an emblematic problem in communist China that has been used for political economy and political repression."
The definition of genocide is established in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
According to the United Nations, genocide means "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group":
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
“You know, a few years ago, if somebody said, ‘American businesses are OK with slavery’ … you might think this is a person who needs to have their head examined. But this is the sad reality,” Turkel said.
“There are 152 state parties to the Genocide Convention. Only seven of them, including our own government, have spoken out. Where are the rest of the state parties? They need to get onto the right side of history by fulfilling the treaty obligations and preventing important legal tools, international legal tools, from becoming a deadbeat letter.”
When told that some critics question the application of the term genocide to what’s happening to the approximately 12 million-strong Uyghur community in China, Turkel, who has not physically seen his parents in China in 27 years, suggested it could perhaps be because they have not experienced the persecution of the Uyghur people.
The Chinese government claims that its "re-education" camps aim to combat Islamic extremism, crime and separatism.
“I don't know if they will say the same thing if their children are taken away from them by the state to state orphanages," Turkel said of critics of the genocide label. "I don't know if they will say the same if their middle-aged wife, mother or sisters need to go through forced sterilization. And I don't know if they will say the same thing, where expressing any type of skepticism when the ethnic group or religious group that they belong to are being subjected to the total destruction or destruction in part."
“I don't know if they will be OK to say, 'We'll ... show this kind of push back if their government or any government says publicly that no mercy in dealing with this particular group because of their ethnicity and race.' So at least several of the legal definitions of genocide is met in the way that China is treating them,” Turkel asserted.
“China has been purposefully and deliberately destroying, in part or whole, this proud, historical, ethnic and religious group. China has prevented natural population growth, through forced abortion, forced sterilization. In 2019 to 2020 alone, the population growth [of the Uyghurs] declined by 25 percent. So this is a staggering number. Close to 800,000 to 1 million Uyghur kids have been taken away from their parents. So that's my answer to those skeptics.”
Why consumers need to take a stand
A recent report from FTI Consulting showed that some 40% of Americans are no longer interested in buying products labeled “Made in China.” Nearly 80% are also willing to pay higher prices to companies that close their Chinese factories.
If consumers in the U.S. and around the world want to take a stand against human rights abuses in China, they will have to speak with their dollars.
“When you look at the kind of people China sends to Western assembly lines, oftentimes they are vulnerable religious or ethnic groups. So this is a much larger problem that’s transnational. It’s not only exclusively a matter that the United States should tackle alone,” Turkel said.
“This is a matter of conscience. This is a matter of consumer decency that the consumer should tell the American corporate executive, 'Not on my watch. I’m not going to wear, I’m not going to let my baby wear baby pajamas made by enslaved fellow human beings. I’m not going to wrap my baby in clothes made by enslaved Uyghurs.'"
Turkey said that the consumer has "so much that they can do to pressure the businesses."
"It is a serious problem. It has to be tackled globally, multilaterally, bilaterally, societally, legally,” he emphasized. “Business leaders need to know that there will be a reputational risk, there will be legal risks, and there will be a consumer risk if they continue the status quo.”