I don’t know if Rango Peng’s sympathies lie with the Chinese government, but his article, which attempts to contextualize Beijing’s “coercion policy” in Xinjiang province, fails to provide key information on this topic. Peng calls for more nuance in the conversations that take place at Columbia, but his op-ed dances around what the Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt stated more bluntly in a column last year: “In China, every day is Kristallnacht.”
Hiatt’s article refers to the cultural genocide of China’s Uyghur population through the widespread destruction of mosques and burial sites, complementing the systematic detention of this Muslim minority. The U.N. estimates that around 1 million people have been sent to “reeducation” facilities, often separating parents from their children. Most of these people have not been charged with a crime, and are often subjected to indoctrination and forced labor. In addition to the deliberate elimination of the population’s Islamic faith, former detainees describe torture, sexual abuse, and forced abortions.
China is operating 21st century concentration camps; this is of “debatable morality” in Peng’s op-ed.
Columbia students should generally be sympathetic to calls for open discussion and debate. Tolerance of perspectives that differ from our own is the bedrock of a high-quality education. As a Republican on Columbia’s campus, I know how it feels to represent a minority point of view that my classmates largely disagree with. That said, this op-ed fails to acknowledge the sheer scale of human suffering that is currently taking place in Xinjiang.
The anecdote featured in the piece—a professor’s comments on the Xinjiang crisis—inspired the author’s purported defense of intellectual diversity. Based on his article, though, it is difficult to conclude that anyone actually stopped him from speaking his mind. A human rights professor merely described the widespread human rights abuses taking place in China, an account supported by reputable media outlets and the U.N. Would his professor have stopped him from describing the causes of China’s policy in that region? I doubt it. After all, the New York Times reports on this crisis have also referenced the terrorist attacks that partly led to these policies. There was also no indication that speaking up would result in a lower grade. It seems that the only thing that stopped him was the potential reputational harm that could come with providing justification for these concentration camps.
Is it biased for a human rights professor to call human rights abuses evil? I agree that editorializing in the classroom should be kept to a minimum and flagged as the professor’s own opinion when it occurs, but when it comes to human rights abuses moral clarity should be evident, especially when they are as widely documented as these are.
I can’t speak to the author’s motives in writing this op-ed, but I can describe what his article accomplishes and why it’s so dangerous. This piece seeks to muddy the water on an issue that should be as clear as day: Genocide is bad. Having context for the causes of mass atrocities remains important, but this cannot provide quasi-justification for these despicable acts.
The final paragraph of Peng’s article calls for recognizing the existence of “different narratives,” avoiding bias, and not intimidating “dissidents.” All of this, in any other context, is crucially important. Here, though, these words strike me as ominously reminiscent of the Chinese government’s arguments emphasizing sovereignty over the protection of fundamental human rights. We cannot allow the erasure of right and wrong when the people doing evil call for tolerance of their crimes. This is what Chinese officials have attempted time and time again. True dissidents challenge authoritarianism: On the most pressing moral issues of the day, they are not neutral.
The United States benefits from a wide-open public forum where anyone—from Chinese dissidents to apologists for totalitarianism—can speak their minds. At Columbia, we usually benefit from this openness, and Peng should enjoy this freedom as much as anyone else at our school. Our system only works, though, when we hold each other accountable.
This is why, as the author notes, the civic culture of the United States is different from that of China. Referring to the two countries, he asks, “Does being different from each other mean that one of the parties should be labeled as wholly evil without question, due to an examination of only its morally controversial actions?”
When it comes to China’s “morally controversial actions” against the Uyghurs, there is only one clear answer to that question.
Jimmy Quinn is a senior studying political science. He is the president of Columbia Republicans, a board member at Columbia’s chapter of the Alexander Hamilton Society, and a former opinion contributor at Spectator. He tweets at @realjimmyquinn.
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