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Atrocities tend to dominate our news cycle, the slow drip of horror sliding onto our screens. Newlyweds slaughtered in some faraway land. Koalas scorched to death by forest fires. Yet another kid drowned in the Mediterranean. Death, suffering, cruelty.
Sometimes these atrocities move us. We stare into a victim’s smile and wonder how they felt as the plane dove into the ground. We change our profile picture, or attack those who do so for being Western-centric, performative, and shallow. We send thoughts and prayers to those bullet-pierced backpacks. And then inevitably, reluctantly perhaps, we move on, knowing that there is very little we can do, knowing that we eventually have to retreat to our own daily lives and sit down for breakfast. Massacres and muffins.
But not all atrocities go away overnight.
According to estimates by the United Nations, roughly a million Uighur Muslims are currently incarcerated in an ever-growing network of “Vocational Education and Training Centers” in Xinjiang, China. The doublespeak phrasing hints at a fittingly Orwellian reality. From arrests determined by algorithms (no trial or charges needed) to constant surveillance of every corner of the locked dorms, the camps embody a concerning strain of 21st-century authoritarianism. According to reports from survivors, those inside face torture (fingernails pulled out, electric shocks), rape, sterilization, and forced abortions. Their only shot at leaving seems to be giving in, changing what the Communist Party deems “bad emotions” and “ideological contradictions,” eating pork in open defiance of their Muslim faith.
The horror is not confined to the camps, or even to Xinjiang itself. From intimidation and harassment beyond its national borders, to veiled threats against the many university students who returned from vacations abroad to find their families have vanished, the Chinese government has pursued a policy of aggressive silencing. A growing police state has come to dominate life in the region, with Uighurs forced through checkpoints that include facial scans and ID requests at mosques and parks. The collection and storage of DNA samples and the use of technology to track citizens’ actions and movements effectively renders even those outside the camps prisoners of the state.
To call the above the most pressing human rights crisis of our time, the biggest threat to fundamental human freedom and dignity, is more than warranted. Not that atrocities, as mentioned above, aren’t present elsewhere. Horror remains depressingly commonplace across the world. Just take a look at the United States’ immigration policies. Yet no other single nation’s actions remain as egregious as those perpetrated in Xinjiang; no other nation partakes in so many other comparatively concerning abuses; no other nation is actively exporting its own peculiar brand of terror, trying to teach its most dystopian repression tactics to fellow authoritarian regimes. China remains simply unparalleled.
The moral imperative for action appears self-evident; the specific course for it remains unclear. Opposing the world’s largest dictatorial regime is hardly straightforward, particularly when it lies an ocean away. There is, however, one promising lead: While our power as individuals might be limited, we all happen to be affiliated with a rather influential institution, one particularly revered across China that proudly champions “more just, fair, promising world.” A rare avenue for change.
Or perhaps not. Harvard’s ties to China appear to whitewash the atrocities of the Chinese government; our president too busy posing for propaganda outlets with President Xi Jinping and deeming his investment in higher education “admirable.” Indeed, University President Lawrence S. Bacow has gone out of his way to give undeserved institutional and academic validation to China, laughably stating that Peking University — where most students know nothing of the 1989 Tiananmen protests that rocked their campus, and faculty can be fired for holding “subversive” views — is devoted to “free thought.”
Worse still is the current framing of the Harvard China Fund, originally designed to promote the University’s presence in China. The fund currently packages a voyeuristic exploration of the regime into a fun summer trip — one dependent on universities that are increasingly cracking down on their own student bodies. One of its student testimonials describes Hong Kong, as seen at the peak of the protests last summer, as interesting for the study of “issues of freedom” but also of “security, and order,” briefly indulging in some politically reprehensible bothsidesism before diving into the more pressing matter of its delightful local cuisine. With some American universities cutting ties to their Chinese partners out of concern for the impact of authoritarianism on free academic pursuit, our institution appears determined to do the exact opposite.
Harvard is not known for taking brave moral stances. It was infamously one of the last schools to divest from South Africa during apartheid, and did so only partially; it has repeatedly refused calls to divest from fossil fuels and the private prison complex. Yet its attitude towards China — the silent abetting of a regime so outrageous in its actions, the willingness to use its influential brand to praise propagandistic institutions, the shoulder-rubbing with the chief executors of a humanitarian catastrophe — stands out as a particularly disgraceful stain on our history, a concerning disregard for basic human decency.
Guillermo S. Hava ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.
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