Golden State Warriors co-owner Chamath Palihapitiya says ‘nobody cares’ about human rights abuses in China. His NBA team disagrees

January 18, 2022, 10:11 AM UTC

Former Facebook executive and founder of investment fund Social Capital, Chamath Palihapitiya, sparked fury online when he dismissed the human rights abuses suffered by China’s Uyghur minorities as something “nobody cares about.”

“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, OK?” Palihapitiya said during an episode of his podcast, All In, responding to a remark made by one of his co-hosts, Jason Calacanis. The episode aired on Saturday but gained attention on Monday.

To give context: Calacanis had said that the Biden administration’s recent passage of a bill criminalizing the import of goods from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on human rights grounds could build bipartisan support in Washington.

But Palihapitiya—speaking as a billionaire, venture capitalist, everyman—told his co-host that it was “a very hard, ugly truth” that “nobody” cares about the Uyghurs, saying the issue was “below [his] line” of interests. Palihapitiya said there are domestic economic issues that he cares about more, and that the U.S. must address its own ongoing human and civil rights injustices before admonishing others.

Yet the swift backlash to Palihapitiya’s comments suggest some people do, in fact, care about the Uyghurs. On twitter, George Washington University professor Donald Clarke lampooned Palihapitiya’s VC fund for aspiring to “[solve] the world’s hardest problems when “apparently even caring abstractly about crimes against humanity & genocide was just a wee bit too hard.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the National Basketball Association to “denounce” Palihapitiya’s comments, too.

On Tuesday, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, of which Palihapitiya is a partial owner, attempted to distance itself from his comments. The team issued a statement that said Palihapitiya’s views “certainly don’t reflect those of our organization.”

The same day, Palihapitiya tweeted a statement that partially walked back his stance or, at least, the way in which he expressed it.

In his “clarifying comments,” Palihapitiya said he recognizes he “come[s] across as lacking empathy” and that he believes “human rights matter, whether in China, the United States, or elsewhere.”

The furor surrounding Palihapitiya’s moral relativism echoes the controversy fellow billionaire investor Ray Dalio triggered last month, when he compared human rights abuses in China to those in the U.S.

During an interview with CNBC’s Squawk Box, Dalio likened the Chinese government to a “strict parent” when asked how he feels about investing in China following the brief disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai. Like Palihapitiya, Dalio took to Twitter days later to “clarify” his position.

For businesses and investors, operating in China became increasingly fraught as relations between Washington and Beijing deteriorated during the Trump administration and as reports of Beijing’s oppression of Xinjiang’s Uyghur minority emerged in 2017.

At home, many Western firms face political pressure to take a moral stance against China’s human rights abuses, but in China, those same brands face economic repercussions for doing so.

In March last year, the Chinese government led a boycott against Swedish retailer H&M after the clothing brand issued a statement expressing “concern” over reports related to Xinjiang. The boycott cratered H&M’s sales in China, knocking the region out of H&M’s ten largest markets.

Sometimes, even not speaking out is problematic in China.

Last month, Chinese state media attacked Walmart after the group removed Xinjiang-sourced items from its Chinese app. Walmart didn’t immediately explain why it had removed the products but the Chinese government accused the retailer of “stupidity” and harboring “ulterior motives.”

In 2019, Beijing led a boycott against the NBA after then-Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. The incident pitted the NBA’s pro-civil rights persona in the U.S. against the realities of operating in China, where free speech is censored.

The Golden Warriors appear to be straddling that same line now, in the wake of Palihapitiya’s comments. Although the team said that Palihapitiya’s views don’t reflect its own, the organization didn’t clarify what its own views are, or even mention the topic at hand. Like all U.S. businesses operating in China, the Golden Warriors are stuck between mollifying their home base and angering Beijing.

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