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Coddling China for profit

A billionaire’s amoral and un-American perspective on the sufferings of the Uyghurs

Chamath Palihapitiya rings the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2017. Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew (file)

Coddling China for profit
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Should Americans care if another nation is exterminating a group of people?

Venture capitalist billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya recently said no, asserting that, as an “ugly truth,” nobody really cares about the Uyghurs in China if it impairs a person’s business dealings with the Communist country. 

The newly enacted Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention legislation requires that goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region cannot enter U.S. ports if forced labor was used to produce them. But Palihapitiya evidently thinks it is silly to protect the enslaved Uyghurs, a small Muslim minority in China.

“Let’s be honest, nobody … cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, OK?” He continued, “The rest of us don’t care. I’m just telling you a very hard truth.” He made these comments quite openly in a recent podcast.

Palihapitiya, who lives in both Canada and the United States, is a former Facebook executive who partly owns San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors. Officials for the NBA team responded that Palihapitiya “does not speak on behalf of our franchise and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organization.”

In response, Palihapitiya, who is originally from Sri Lanka, tweeted an admission that his comments had “lacked empathy” and insisted, “I believe that human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere” He added, “As a refugee, my family fled a country with its own human rights issues so this is something that is very much part of my lived experience.” But Palihapitiya never retracted his offensive statement dismissing the persecution of the Uyghurs. He simply used a public relations strategy of saying that his statement had lacked nuance.

While the billionaire’s insistence that he cares about humanity was unconvincing, his original podcast comments helped reveal that many do believe that profits supersede morality.

Profiting from overseas suffering doesn’t benefit America. Such exploitation contravenes America’s historic self-understanding of itself as a force for good and a defender of human liberty for all people.

Notably, Palihapitiya said in his podcast that he does, again presumably for his own financial reasons, “care about the fact that our economy could turn on a dime if China invades Taiwan. … I care about climate change. … I care about America’s crippling … decrepit healthcare infrastructure. But if you’re asking me, do I care about a segment of a class of people in another country? Not until we can take care of ourselves, will I prioritize them over us.”

Most Americans would agree that U.S. foreign policy should prioritize American interests, but Palihapitiya appeared to be referring to his interests. Profiting from overseas suffering doesn’t benefit America. Such exploitation contravenes America’s historic self-understanding of itself as a force for good and a defender of human liberty for all people. Exploitation through slave labor is decidedly not an American interest and should repulse all Americans, especially the son of refugees who came to America for liberty and opportunity and who became enormously rich.

When, in the podcast, he was asked about the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights orchestrated by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948, Palihapitiya dismissed such concerns as a “luxury belief.”

The investor indicted American concern about international human rights as hypocritical, which is a convenient “moral” argument that conveniently aligns with Palihapitiya finances. There is nothing new in his self-serving arguments. America and the democratic West have always had wealthy moguls anxious to profit from horrendous dictatorships hostile to their own countries and wider humanity. Henry Ford was fine dealing with the Nazis. Armand Hammer was friends with the Soviets and did business with Lenin.

As China grows in wealth and power, expect more such amoral statements from tycoons like Palihapitiya whose business interests preclude criticism of China and will often combine overt defense of China with the denigration of America. American Christians, of course, must reject this depraved and exploitative indifference to human rights.

To be sure, American Christians must focus first on America, confronting our national sins while working to redeem wider society. But our concerns cannot end there. To the extent we can, American Christians should be in solidarity with all suffering people, especially when threatened with destruction by their own government.

America cannot be America if indifferent to the sufferings, much less the genocide, of people overseas. We cannot save the world, but human rights are not a “luxury belief.” We must empathize with the suffering and pray for the morally numb among us like Palihapitiya. We have already seen human rights sacrificed by American corporations for the sake of relations with China. Our hope must be that the immoral words of Chamath Palihapitiya are seen for what they are.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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