Perverse OptimismBettina Krause July/August 2022
At a Capitol Hill meeting some years ago I heard a report that sounded utterly far-fetched. It was during a regular weekly gathering of human rights and religious freedom advocates, each representing a different government agency, nongovernmental organization, or faith group.
Toward the end of that day’s agenda someone rose to speak. His concern? Organ harvesting, which he claimed was being carried out on religious and cultural groups in detention in China—minorities such as Uyghurs, Tibetans, Muslims, Falun Gong practitioners, and Christians. He said there was indisputable evidence that organs were being taken from living, nonconsenting donors—kidneys, livers, corneas, and even hearts.
His claims activated my conspiracy-theory antennae. Really? Could such a premeditated, systematic, large-scale atrocity of this kind be taking place in the way he described? Surely such horrors wouldn’t go under the radar. They’d be widely known and reported in the media. I looked around, trying to read the skepticism level in the room.
I had a lot to learn.
I learned, for instance, that the United Nations has documented credible evidence of these practices. According to its most recent report, released in 2021, detainees from ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities may be forcibly subjected to medical examinations without their informed consent and then registered in a database of living organ sources.
Yet this is just one facet of China’s brutal treatment of many of its minorities. Since at least 2014, Chinese authorities have detained a reported 1 million Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang province—the nation’s northern manufacturing hub. Hundreds of thousands of these cultural and religious “misfits” are being held in camps and subjected to so-called re-education intended to render them more tractable to China’s Communist authorities.
What most of us don’t realize, however, is that we each likely have a direct personal connection with these horrific abuses.
How? Through the complicated wonders of global economic supply chains.
Many of these Muslim detainees in Xinjiang have also been conscripted as unpaid laborers in factories that produce goods or product components that, in turn, flow into international markets. Global corporations including Apple, Kraft Heinz, Adidas, Nike, Coca-Cola, Costco, Patagonia, Tommy Hilfiger, and many, many more have supply links with Xinjiang province. This region alone produces around one fifth of the world’s cotton supply. A vast range of our consumer products—from T-shirts to solar panels to Christmas decorations—are made in whole or part by men and women detained in inhumane conditions and forced to work without pay. Women such as 39-year-old Gulzira Auelkhan, who, before escaping to the West, was bused to a textile factory before dawn each day to sew gloves, alongside hundreds of other unpaid factory workers.1
The chances are high that we all have products in our homes that have been touched by the hands of someone such as Gulzira.
All this forms the background to a landmark U.S. law, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which went into effect a few weeks ago. This extraordinary law imposes strict accountability on U.S. importers that have links, no matter how tangential, to Xinjiang province. The law presumes that all goods from that province have been made with forced labor, and are therefore banned, unless the importer can clearly prove otherwise.
The passage of this law was astonishing for many reasons, not least because in a pathologically divided Congress it gained overwhelming bipartisan support. Even more surprising, this bipartisanship survived fierce and sustained opposition from powerful U.S. corporations who foresaw how this enforced moral reckoning could impact their bottom lines. According to one estimate, the law will impact some $64 billion in direct U.S. imports from Xinjiang each year, along with some $119 billion imported from elsewhere in China.
It’s tempting to think this law makes a statement, writ large on the global stage, about American identity and values. A statement that says to be American means standing up for the rights of these oppressed cultural and religious misfits, regardless of the economic consequences to ourselves. But does it?
You could rightly point out that the Uyghur genocide isn’t the only massive-scale human rights atrocity taking place in the world today. That because it’s happening in China, many China hawks in Congress have a vested interest in acting.
A cynic could go further and say passage of the bill has less to do with any kind of core American identity and more to do with moral posturing on the part of politicians.
Others may say, “So what if the left and right managed to find moral agreement on this narrow issue? Just look at the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s abortion decision—America is more fractured than ever.”
But I feel a perverse sense of optimism when I consider the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Act. The fact that this law exists and is now being enforced is powerful proof that a shared ideal is still able to unite and energize an otherwise disparate group of people.
I know some of the folk who pushed hard on this bill behind the scenes. They weren’t only Uyghur advocates or foreign policy hardliners. The people who worked for the passage of this law included representatives from many different American faith groups—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and more. They partnered with human rights organizations whose political persuasions span the spectrum from left to right. They sat together and worked together because they shared a belief in two bedrock values of American identity: that the rights of minorities matter, and the right to religious freedom or belief belongs to every person, regardless of their nationality or religious tradition.
Idealistic? Naive? Perhaps. But it’s the kind of naivete shared by President John F. Kennedy when he reminded Americans—then violently divided on civil rights reform—that “this nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” It’s a naivete shared by Nelson Mandela, who, after enduring 27 years of unjust incarceration, worked with some of his former oppressors to end apartheid, and later wrote, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” It’s the kind of naivete that seems appropriate for this month, as we celebrate the achievement of an incongruous group of idealists who managed to set the great American political experiment in motion.
For now, nothing much has changed. Our disagreements remain as entrenched as ever. But just for a moment I’m happy to enjoy some optimism, however perverse.
1 For more about the Uyghur genocide and a behind-the-scenes look how the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention law was passed, it’s worth reading Haley Byrd Wilt’s 80-plus-page journalistic tour de force, “The Liberty of Democracy Is a Complicated Undertaking”: How the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Became Law, June 20, 2022, thedispatch.com.
Article Author: Bettina Krause
Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.