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Economy & Business

Corporate America’s ‘Xinjiang Silence’ — and One Promising Exception

A Uyghur man sits at a street market in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, 2011. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Even as a handful of governments have finally started to recognize China’s Uyghur genocide for what it is, raising the possibility that Western countries impose sanctions targeting the perpetrators of these atrocities and boycott the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics, the response from large corporations continues to lag.

The Wire China, a worthwhile new outlet focusing on China-related news for a U.S. audience, has brought to light corporate America’s more-or-less collective shrug at evidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s extensive human-rights abuses — which the administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both formally labeled crimes against humanity and genocide

Reporters Katrina Northrop and Eli Binder reached out to 48 of the largest U.S. businesses with business ties to China to ask for their comment on the crisis. How many condemned the CCP’s conduct in Xinjiang? As few as any pessimist would expect:

Only six companies — Apple, Caterpillar, IBM, Intel, Dell and Pfizer — responded to questions about Xinjiang, all saying they do not source products from the region. But only one expressed dismay about the Chinese government’s actions there.

“Dell Technologies does not source from the Xinjiang Province. We continue to be concerned about allegations that ethnic Uyghurs are subject to forced labor in factories outside of Xinjiang Province, including those supplying the tech industry,” an unnamed spokesperson told The Wire over email. (Dell was in the hot seat last year when the Associated Press found that one of its suppliers had a subsidiary that used Uyghur forced labor. That subsidiary is now sanctioned by the U.S. government.)

As they go on to note, large American companies with any hope of establishing a foothold in China have a consistent record of failing to stand up to CCP political pressure. More than a few of the companies that didn’t respond or declined to comment have previously yielded to Beijing’s requests.

Disney, which was one of the companies that didn’t respond to The Wire, became the subject of a white-hot controversy when it came to light that scenes from its live action remake of Mulan were shot in Xinjiang, facilitated by local security services and propaganda bureaus at a time when the Party’s mass detention program has been widely discussed. Bob Iger, its former CEO, previously declined to comment on the Hong Kong crackdown. His justification: “To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake.”

As The Wire notes, Delta, which also declined to respond, fits into a similar category. The airline bowed to Beijing’s demands that it stop including Taiwan and Tibet as separate locations in its website’s drop down menus. After China’s civil aviation administration called on Delta to change this, the company issued an apologetic statement: “It was an inadvertent error with no business or political intention, and we apologize deeply for the mistake. As one of our most important markets, we are fully committed to China and to our Chinese customers.”

These are but two examples from an extensive list of similar capitulations. And The Wire’s reporting shows that the list of companies comfortable with silence is even longer.

Fortunately, one fledgling tech powerhouse, recently valued at $115 billion, hasn’t remained silent. Patrick Collison, CEO of payment processing company Stripe, has been an unusually outspoken — and lonely — voice in the business world calling for recognition of the CCP’s crimes.

After news broke of the Party’s genocidal forced sterilization program in Xinjiang, Collison wrote on Twitter, “As a US business (and tech) community, I think we should be significantly clearer about our horror at, and opposition to, the atrocities being committed by the Chinese government against its own people.”

That was June. It seems that few have heeded this call in the months since, a time period that has seen the recognition of genocide by the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands, in addition to some of the most horrific revelations yet of what goes on in the camps.

In an interview columnist Noah Smith published in his Substack newsletter today, Collison reprised those calls, noting the “discouraging” fact that the treatment of the Uyghurs “receives as little condemnation from those in power as it does.”

“I get why, of course: It’s bad for business,” he told Smith, echoing Iger’s explanation but instead concluding that support for human rights should be “absolute.” Collison continued, “In his commencement address at Harvard in 1978, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn claimed that civic courage was in decline. I don’t know whether or not it was (or is), but, whatever the trendline, it seems important to me to ensure that it doesn’t.”

That trend line will hold steady as long as business leaders such as Collison are the exception, and until government policy can create strong incentives for businesses to wean themselves off of Chinese money.


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