It was almost a year to the day that a magazine article praising Chamath Palihapitiya’s quest to make the world a better place came out when the billionaire and part owner of the Golden State Warriors, found himself in damage control over his comments on human rights.
On his podcast All-In, featuring wealthy investors opining on a range of issues, Palihapitiya weighed in on the Uyghur genocide in western China.
“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, OK,” he said on the show, going on to add, “I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.”
The clip of Palihapitiya, part of a nearly hour-and-a-half episode from last Saturday in which he argues the U.S. should fix its own problems rather than look at issues elsewhere, blew up on social media Monday and scorn rained down upon the 45-year-old Canadian venture capitalist originally from Sri Lanka but raised in Ottawa.
The backlash suggests many in fact do care, advocates say, and as Uyghur activists struggle to make even more people care, some say they may have received an unintentional helping hand from Palihapitiya.
“It was a trending story,” said Mehmet Tohti of the Canada-based Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project. “It’s because many people shared it, not because they agree with what he said, but they were shocked and surprised.”
The Uyghurs are an ethnic minority in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where credible reports of actions consistent with genocide against them have emerged in recent years, including mass interment camps thought to have held as many as two million people, plus reports of torture and forced labour.
Last year, the U.S. State Department labelled China’s actions a genocide and Canada’s Parliament passed a motion calling it one, with cabinet members abstaining from the vote.
In the past, Palihapitiya has received praise in the media, such as a Jan. 18, 2021 piece in Maclean’s calling him a “billionaire capitalist investing in a better world.” Another article from the Globe and Mail in 2017 was headlined “Chamath Palihapitiya wants to change the world.”
His investment firm, Social Capital, says it aims to “advance humanity by solving the world’s hardest problems.”
But headlines this week were reporting his NBA team asserting that Palihapitiya’s views did not reflect the organization’s.
He issued a followup statement on Twitter saying he recognized he sounded as though he lacked empathy and that human rights do matter to him, stressing he was trying to have a nuanced discussion about the issue.
Palihapitiya raised his own “lived experience” as a refugee originally from Sri Lanka in the tweet.
But his comments may actually have changed the world, at least a little, on the Uyghur issue.
Nury Turkel, a Uyghur activist and member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he’d never seen such a high level of interest in Uyghur rights.
“I was pleased that we’ve seen a global condemnation. Senators, congressmen, average citizens,” Turkel said. “I never thought that we’d see this level of interest, pushback. The word Uyghur was trending yesterday. That shows that humanity still exists.”
But he said the comments reflect an overwhelming problem. Turkel said they are “emblematic” of the big business, sports and entertainment industries.
Speaking generally, he charged such industries are “to an extent doing the bidding” of the Chinese Communist Party for the sake of access to the Chinese market.
He said he believes Palihapitiya’s comments reflect that attitude, and provided a moment when light was cast upon it.
“It was the most explosive and explicit statement that any business leader has made to date,” he said. “He shot himself in the foot by being so clumsy, but the others have been very, very subtle and careful.”
Turkel pointed out how recently Tesla opened a showroom in Urumqi, Xinjiang and recently big business fought against new U.S. legislation banning products from the region unless the importer can prove they were not made from slave labour.
He said many corporate leaders have enabled China to continue its actions in Xinjiang by looking the other way, and, in turn, consumers and shareholders aren’t pressuring them to act.
“(Business leaders) can criticize our government, our country, Canada, United States, Europe, anything because it’s convenient, there’s no cost,” he said. “That’s why they’re so comfortable calling our governments out, our countries out, and try to defend the communist regime that is committing genocide under broad daylight.”
The Star requested an interview with Palihapitiya through Social Capital’s press email on its website, but did not receive a response.
During Saturday’s podcast, Palihapitiya appeared to say he has no startups in Xinjiang asking him to invest.
Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it’s important people care about human rights for the sake of human rights themselves. But there’s also a bigger picture about which to think.
“On a more practical level, if people in Canada, the U.S. or elsewhere don’t care about the terrible human rights abuses inflicted by the CCP on people inside the Chinese border, it will embolden the CCP to extend its long arms to violate your rights,” she wrote in an email.
“People in Canada or elsewhere should care about the Uyghurs and others in China for the sake of those whose rights are being violated and for the sake of ourselves.”
With files from the Associated Press