At this point, it is quite clear that financial interests play a major role in preventing the world from speaking out about human rights abuses in China. With a population nearing 1.5 billion people, China is the world’s biggest market, and it has the second largest GDP. China also exerts influence globally with its huge military—with more than two million active duty personnel—and its veto power on the United Nations Security Council. But it is the economic might and the prospect of even more economic influence out of Beijing that keeps much of the world silent on issues like the persecution and ghastly mistreatment of the ethnic minority Uighur Muslims. The global oil trade plays a major part in that.
While the people of the world watch in horror as more disturbing information is regularly revealed about the mistreatment of the Uighurs, the situation is starting to remind us of the some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century—the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, the Bosnian Genocide. It is estimated that one million Uighurs have been forced into concentration camps where the government tries to brainwash them, and there are reports of forced abortions and sterilizations.
Just last week, a video shot by drone circulated across the internet showing scores of blindfolded, bound and guarded Uighur prisoners waiting for trains. The BBC asked the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. about it, but he only stammered and tried to obfuscate. Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee wrote that, “the Chinese surveillance state being used to send Muslim Uyghurs to concentration camps is a preview of the electronic tyranny they one day seek to impose on the entire world.” But what is the world doing about it?
Uighurs are a Muslim group, ethnically distinct from most of China. One might hope that if much of the U.S. and Europe remain silent, at least some powerful Muslim-majority countries would protest China’s atrocities against the Uighurs. While Saudi Arabia is the the religious center of the Islamic world and the second richest Muslim-majority country (after Indonesia), it and its regional allies will not criticize China. China is a very good oil customer. In fact, in February of 2019, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, actually defended China’s imprisonment of this large Muslim minority group. Bin Salman dressed up China’s atrocities as anti-terror actions, an excuse often used by his own kingdom and others to silence and persecute parts of their own populations.
Saudi Arabia backs China for the same reason so many Americans and American corporations do, despite the evidence of vile atrocities. In fact, Saudi Arabia is even more dependent on revenue from China than almost anyone else, and that dependence has become more pronounced in recent years. In 2019, 24% of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil exports went to China. Using the average price of Brent oil ($64.28/barrel), Aramco had about $40 billion in revenue from crude oil sales to China. That alone makes up 12% of Aramco’s 2019 revenue and does not even include petroleum products sold to China or revenue from Aramco’s numerous joint refining and petrochemical ventures with Chinese companies, both in China and in Saudi Arabia. Simply put, China accounts for such a large component of Aramco’s revenue, and Aramco provides 60% of the Saudi budget. The Saudi monarchy feels that it cannot risk criticizing Chinese policy, even the persecution of the Uighur Muslims.
Now, Saudi Arabia is not unique. Nike, Apple and the NBA are three prominent U.S. businesses that have strong ties to China and have been criticized of late for prioritizing those ties over human rights. There are even serious accusations that Nike’s sneakers are produced with forced labor in China and that both Nike and Apple profit from slave-like conditions for Uighur laborers. The NBA faced a kerfuffle last year when a team executive faced pushback from within the league (including from some of its biggest stars) for supporting pro-freedom protests in Hong Kong. The difference is that Saudi Arabia is almost a one company kingdom, and so the kingdom itself—arguably a leader of the Muslim community—is supporting China’s atrocities against the Uighurs.
If the world is to stand up to China to stop this abominable mistreatment of people, countries and companies must make the decision that money is not everything. This column is a strong proponent of free markets and capitalism, but sometimes finances are not the end all and be all. Nike, Apple, the NBA and Saudi Arabia must sacrifice some profit. Otherwise, the twenty first century will be no different from the twentieth.