The Golden State Warriors team has been quick to issue a statement in response to tech billionaire Chamath Palihapitiya’s damaging remarks about the Uyghurs. But the US basketball team’s response itself is a reminder of the extent of China’s sway over discussion of human rights issues even beyond its borders.
Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist whose family fled from Sri Lanka to Canada, said during a recent episode of the tech podcast “All-In,” which he co-hosts, that “nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs.”
“You bring it up because you really care. And I think it’s nice that you care. The rest of us don’t care,” said Palihapitiya, who made the remark while addressing another co-host Jason Calacanis who brought up the topic in the context of US president Joe Biden’s handling of international affairs. “I’m just telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line,” said the 45-year-old to a stunned-looking Calcanis.
Palihapitiya’s comment regarding China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority has stirred widespread rebuke and discussion.
Enes Kanter, a player from the Boston Celtics who is known for his outspokenness on issues including Xinjiang, said he was “very angry, very disgusted, and very disappointed” about the billionaire’s comment, according to Fox News. “What’s happened to the Uyghurs is one of the worst human rights abuses in the world today, and there’s a genocide happening while we’re talking right now. And he’s going out there and saying, ‘I could care less.'”
What the Warriors statement said—and didn’t say
The Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority living in Xinjiang, China’s western edge, have long been viewed by Chinese authorities with suspicion. Starting about five years ago, China launched a campaign of detaining them for stays in “reeducation” centers where they undergo training to be more patriotic. Some former detainees have recounted being subjected to brutality, including forced abortions. Measures targeting birth rate are seen as one barometer to judge that human rights violations against a group could constitute genocide, a determination the US State Department made last year.
China, however, has said it’s trying to prevent violent extremism, and sees the US stance, as well as those of several European governments, as a performance intended to harm its reputation, particularly as advocacy on behalf of the Uyghurs has taken aim at the approaching Winter Olympics. Since last year, several global companies that have spoken about efforts to avoid sourcing from Xinjiang, where a fifth of the world’s cotton is produced, have faced a backlash in China.
In response, companies have become more and more circumspect in how they weigh in on the issue.
It was clear the Warriors would have to say something, given Palihapitiya has owned a roughly 10% stake in the National Basketball Association team since 2011. Early on Tuesday, the team issued a one-sentence statement on Twitter. “As a limited investor who has no day-to-day operating functions with the Warriors, Mr. Palihapitiya does not speak on behalf of our franchise, and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organization,” it said, without making any reference to the Uyghurs or Xinjiang, or even naming China.
The Warriors didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Palihapitiya, who has often made a point of being polarizing, later also issued a statement in which he recognized he “come across as lacking empathy,” and that “human rights matter.”
The Warriors’ decision to omit any reference to the most central part of the controversy itself drew attention, prompting some to demand the team say more clearly what its views on Xinjiang are—a strange echo of Chinese consumers’ complaints about corporate statements on the issue.
US companies’ collective silence on Xinjiang
The Warriors’ vague statement is part of a growing tendency in US corporate statements on this topic, which increasingly avoid mentioning words such as Xinjiang or Uyghurs, in an attempt to please both Chinese and overseas audiences. It’s a worrying development that shows western companies are treating these words as taboo even when ostensibly addressing US or other audiences, effectively extending and aiding China’s censorship of topics it doesn’t like even outside the country. Excluding these words could make it harder for activists, shareholders, or other interested citizens to track corporate stances over time, for example.
Last year, H&M issued a statement on Xinjiang that didn’t use the word Xinjiang, after the Swedish clothing giant faced a backlash toward past statements pledging not to source from the region. More recently, Intel apologized on Chinese social media last month for stating in a letter to suppliers that it doesn’t source goods or services from Xinjiang, whose exports have been banned by the US unless companies can prove there is no forced labor involved in the process.
The company said on Weibo that the line in the letter doesn’t represent its stance on Xinjiang and was a reference to regulatory compliance, and did not say explicitly that it doesn’t source from the region. So far, the company has removed the line, or any mention of China or Xinjiang from the letter, which now states that the firm prohibits “any human trafficked or involuntary labour such as forced, debt bonded, prison, indentured, or slave labour throughout your extended supply chains.”
“We issued a statement in China to address concerns raised by our stakeholders there regarding how we communicated certain legal requirements and policies with our global supplier network. We will continue to ensure that our global sourcing complies with applicable laws and regulations in the US and in other jurisdictions where we operate,” said an Intel spokesperson in response to the controversy at the time, in December.
Quartz has reached out to the company again.