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Save the Uighurs. Boycott China.

American businesses profit immensely from, and contribute to, the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of its Uighur minority.
November 13, 2020
Save the Uighurs. Boycott China.
Mark Cuban and Part of Chinese yuan renminbi banknotes with words in Chinese which translate as "The People's Bank of China" (GettyImages / Shutterstock)

In a recent interview, Megyn Kelly asked Mark Cuban, the owner of Dallas Mavericks, why he still conducts business with China, despite the regime’s grotesque abuses of human rights, especially running concentration camps for Uighur Muslims. Cuban gave the most amoral answer possible:

They are a customer. They are a customer of ours. And guess what, Megyn? I’m OK with doing business with China. You know, I wish I could solve all the world’s problems, Megyn. I’m sure you do, too. But we can’t.

Cuban can’t solve the world’s problems, but he can help. He simply doesn’t want to because it costs him money. Like all financial transactions, the Mavericks’ business with Beijing benefits both sides, so while the NBA profits from their trade, so does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing buys influence over the U.S. public opinion and generates cash, both directly through taxes the NBA pays CCP, and indirectly by stimulating economic activity in China.

Cuban is not alone in kowtowing to the CCP due to financial interest. A storm of controversy followed a Houston Rockets executive’s tweet supporting Hong Kong’s democracy protesters. LeBron James, the franchise’s superstar, complained that those words of encouragement could hurt NBA players financially. James’s protestations were at most technically true: All NBA players are very privileged financially, and disrupting the NBA’s $500 million deal with China would not have any significant impact on their lifestyles.

The NBA is far from the only major U.S. business which deals with China. Virtually—perhaps literally—all of them have investments in China, due to the country’s population and the size of its economy. By enriching themselves, they enrich the CCP, too. This makes them accomplices in Chinese human rights abuses.

China hawks and human rights advocates (the two groups frequently and justifiably going together) frequently use the phrase “concentration camps” in reference to the CCP’s treatment of Uighurs. This is because this phrase touches a historical wound that has not healed and will never heal—the Holocaust. Chinese concentration camp system has not, so far as we can tell, included death camps, but it is the closest that any state has come to the Holocaust since 1945. Even the Soviet gulags, as despicable as they were, were not designed with a certain ethnic group in mind, as the Nazi camps and the archepelago in Xinjiang were. The CCP has also adopted a eugenics policy to slowly, methodically, mathematically eradicate its Uighur population.

American dollars should not finance such crimes.

The current state of amoral commerce is an anomaly in American history. During the Cold War, American businesses were partners against the Soviet Union. When Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States, he was keen on visiting Disneyland. Disney’s board of directors, however, was staunchly anti-communist and forbad Khrushchev from visiting. Today, the same Walt Disney Corporation has, by going out of its way to appeal to the Chinese audience, made itself a propaganda arm of the CCP. The most recent example is the movie Mulan, based on a Chinese legend which Disney bastardized to appease the CCP by falsely depicting the protagonist as a loyal agent of the emperor. In the credits of the remake of Mulan, Disney offered special thanks to the authorities in Xinjiang—the same ones confining millions of Uighur Muslims in concentration camps.

Disney is not alone in Hollywood. A recent and damning report by the free expression organization PEN America details how the entertainment industry is censoring its own members—or, put another way, how entertainment companies are censoring themselves—to appease the CCP’s interest. Simply put, not only are American entertainment institutions complicit in the CCP’s outrageous violations of human rights, but they are also voluntarily submitting themselves and by extension American audiences to a share of the CCP’s tyranny.

And the story does not end with the entertainment industry. American companies in a variety of industries are accomplices to this evil. The American tech industry has been lobbying the government against cutting ties with Chinese tech companies, including Huawei, despite the company’s work helping the CCP to create a surveillance state. Huawei recently signed a contract with the police department in Xinjiang, the region where most Uighurs live, to help them to track residents at all times.

It gets worse. Google has been conducting business in China. In 2019,  then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford stated categorically that “the work that Google is doing in China is indirectly benefiting the Chinese military.” A year earlier, Google had refused to renew its contract with the Department of Defense, after some of its employees protested that selling services to the Pentagon would be (wait for it) . . . immoral.

There are smaller businesses that engage with China. And there are, of course, all kinds of businesses that engage with other authoritarian countries. This is inevitable in a global economy. Besides, a business is not a humanitarian NGO and needs to make some moral compromises to survive. But which ones, and to what end?

The responsibility not to cooperate with evil rests more on larger businesses than on smaller ones and applies more to China than to other unfree countries. Unlike small businesses, large corporations have deep roots among consumers, great financial resources, and recognized brands, allowing them to be more flexible in their investments. Small businesses, however, lack such resources and have to be more mindful about maximization of profits. Large corporations also benefit the CCP orders of magnitude more than their smaller counterparts. 

Just as there are different sizes of companies, there are different levels of autocracy. In the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Egypt were both autocracies, but no one would suggest that Egypt was as evil a regime nor as great a threat to the free world as Hitler’s. Today, Kuwait and China are both autocracies, but only one of them sends its minorities to concentration camps, props up the North Korean slave state, and poses a threat to freedom in its own neighborhood and in the United States.

Engaging in business with Kuwait is a moral compromise. Engaging in business with China is unconditional moral surrender.

It is very difficult for a liberal democracy to prevent its private entities from commercial activity in other countries, and that is a good thing. But a market economy can only work if its participants—producers and consumers alike—adhere to a moral framework. Faced with a coordinated, resource-rich, self-confident challenge of the kind that now exists in China, a free economy unguided by strategic considerations will sell its murderer any weapon for the right price.

American corporations ought to cut ties with China. But there is no indication that they will do so of their own accord. They have shown that concentration camps and China’s takeover of Hong Kong are not morally objectionable enough to reject Chinese money. It falls, therefore, to American consumers to make this choice for them. The problem is that America’s economic integration with China makes an economic decoupling inconceivable. So American consumers have to choose their battles.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report from earlier this year, “Uyghurs for Sale,” can be a roadmap. The report identifies 82 corporations that use Chinese forced labor in their production lines. Consumers can begin by calling for boycotts of these corporations and others that directly abet and benefit from human rights violations. Congress can help by requiring the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor to publish an annual report of corporations that profit from such abuses.

Boycotts are nothing new. The Montgomery Bus Boycott helped bring about the end of Jim Crow. The international boycott of South Africa helped end apartheid. In fact, political boycotts have been so successful that they’ve inspired a series of less impressive imitations. A sundry assortment of terrorist leaders and undergraduates has been trying for years to boycott everything Israeli, and sporadic boycott attempts pop up from time to time in the culture war (one year it’s Starbucks Christmas cups, the next it’s Chick-fil-A or Keurig).

With these examples in mind, there’s reason to think that boycotts are more successful when their moral cause is more urgent and righteous. Americans have historically cared about gross human rights violations. There is hope that they will care that corporations they do business with are complicit in the 21st century’s greatest evil. And there is a successful recent model of a large, powerful company being pressured out of conducting business in China over human rights concerns. In 2017, Google launched its Dragonfly project, the aim of which was to develop a search engine that would censor certain websites and results at the request of the CCP. Google scratched the project in 2019, following heavy criticism.

It is unacceptable for Americans to finance Chinese concentration camps or help to strengthen the CCP’s surveillance state. No amount of revenue can justify the 21st century’s greatest moral stain. Each company that benefits from the atrocities committed by the CCP should have its name published on a list for all to see. Let the source of their profits be known, and let the consumers make their choice.

Correction, November 13, 2020: An earlier version of this article misattributed a tweet in support of the Hong Kong democracy protests to an executive from the San Antonio Spurs instead of the Houston Rockets.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.