Chamath Palihapitiya, a partial owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, made headlines in January for comments about the plight of Uyghurs in China. Discussing the salience of electoral political issues in the U.S., Palihapitiya said, “Nobody cares what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay?” Speaking to his cohost, Palihapitiya responded, “The rest of us don’t care. . . . I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth, okay. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.”
Palihapitiya elaborated further on his reasoning: “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.” Palihapitiya called concerns about global human rights “a luxury belief.” He went on to say that the American record concerning human rights domestically leaves no room for moral judgment or “virtue signaling” with respect to other countries.
While Palihapitiya’s remarks capture something true about the nature of human concern, they don’t do justice to the complexities of either our modern world or God’s call to care for those beyond our natural communities.
Politics and Economics of Care
There’s a great deal to unpack here, and context certainly matters. Palihapitiya was addressing a larger discussion about domestic politics and electoral issues. The conversation involved questions about whether issues like human rights abuses around the world, including places like China, have significance for American voters.
Yet Palihapitiya seems wrong to say that “nobody cares” about the plight of the oppressed Uyghurs in China. At the outset of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, there’s greater global attention on China’s human rights record, including diplomatic boycotts of the games from countries including the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, and Canada.
The federal government recently passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a rare moment of bipartisan unity in an era of particularly rancorous partisanship. The act, which goes into effect later this year, would restrict the import of goods from the Xinjiang province of China, where much of the work is done by oppressed Uyghurs.
Palihapitiya’s remarks don’t do justice to the complexities of either our modern world or God’s call to care for those beyond our natural communities.
Actual enforcement of the act remains a challenge, and here Palihapitiya’s observations have some merit: unless there’s political will to follow through with concrete consequences, the passage of the act amounts to political theater or even “virtue signaling.” A single measure isn’t enough to combat enslavement and human trafficking globally either; even in China there’s evidence of the use of Uyghur forced labor in other provinces as well.
These kinds of dismissive comments from Palihapitiya about a life-and-death struggle for an oppressed ethnic and religious minority also ring hollow because they come from someone with an ownership stake in a high-profile NBA franchise. In recent years the NBA has been embroiled in its own controversies about doing business in China, including pressure on personnel and players to remain silent about human rights abuses in the interests of making money from this growing market. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom has vocally criticized both the NBA and its stars (notably LeBron James) for complicity and silence on human rights abuses in China. In 2019, former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey spoke out about the political situation in Hong Kong, and controversy erupted as the NBA sought to placate Chinese authorities.
But even though there are challenges to the political implementation of policies including the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, and despite the question of whether the plight of Uyghurs has electoral salience domestically in the U.S., the moral question of whether we ought to care about the suffering of others remains significant, particularly for Christians.
Palihapitiya’s position about the need to prioritize our care for those closest to us in some ways manifests the truths about how love must work itself out in a complex world. The doctrine of subsidiarity respects our variegated personal relationships and helps us discern how to effectively care for others in a world of limitless needs. Augustine put it best: “All men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you.”
For Christians, this means recognizing the natural relationships we have with others, through family, friendship, and citizenship. And while Christians also must affirm special regard for fellow members of Christ’s body (Gal. 6:10), we’re called to care for everyone—relatives, friends, and even enemies.
Circles of Our Concern
While we ought to care about everyone because of our shared human nature and God’s call to love others, we can only manifest this solidarity through concrete actions toward those with whom we have some connection.
We live in an era where there’s increasing temptation to draw the circles of our concern closer and closer to ourselves. In this sense, Palihapitiya’s sentiments capture a widespread attitude that focuses on what separates us from others, sharply demarcating those whom we should care about from those who are beyond our notice or concern.
We live in an era where there’s increasing temptation to draw the circles of our concern closer and closer to ourselves.
What Palihapitiya’s analysis fails to acknowledge, though, is that through a global marketplace we’re brought into connection with all kinds of people all over the world, people whom we never see and never meet face-to-face. We don’t know their names. But because of technology, we can know something about their situation. This is true for the manufacture of iPhones, and such market relationships have implications for international sports.
In this way, the social dimension of commerce helps clarify the moral commitments we have to people all over the world with whom we do business through global networks of value and supply chains. Government restrictions on trade involving slave labor can help businesses and consumers recognize these moral demands and respond appropriately. This might mean refusing to buy products that are made in the Xinjiang province. But it might also mean opposing businesses and ventures that—whether in word or deed—make it clear that they consider slavery, genocide, and human rights abuses acceptable.
There are limits to what any of us can do, either individually or together. There are also limits to what we can appropriately concern ourselves with, so we have to make judgments about where and when to spend our limited resources of attention and influence. But we’re all too often tempted to draw the lines of our concern precisely at those boundaries where our care becomes uncomfortable or too demanding.
Who really cares about the Uyghurs? God does. So should we, as we are able, God helping us.