April 18, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Has a Responsibility to the Uyghur People when Collaborating in China

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In light of the ongoing discussions about the lack of awareness, sensitivity and the objectionable response from members of the Brooks School of Public policy in conversations regarding human rights violations against Uyghur people in China, we should assess Cornell’s policies and initiatives surrounding the ongoing genocide.

Cornell has extensive collaborations in China, ranging from scholarships such as the Tang Cornell-China program to the Cornell-Tsinghua Dual Degree Finance MBA program, Cornell Institute for China Economic Research and the Cornell China Center. In fact, Cornell has the greatest number of collaborations — amounting to over 10 percent of all international collaborations — in China, including off-campus programs at Peking University. In these numerous efforts affiliated with China, what is Cornell doing to support the Uyghur people and voice opposition to the massive genocide by the Chinese government?

Human rights violations against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minority groups perpetrated by the Chinese government range from denial of the expression of civil and political rights, freedom of religion, to the right to a fair trial. Worse yet, over one million individuals have been detained in camps where they have been tortured, deprived of food and subject to political indoctrination. These atrocities are well outlined in the U.S. Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. Yet, neither Cornell’s websites nor public-facing material from its numerous collaborative programs in China acknowledges or much less acts on this ongoing oppression and genocide.

Institutions have many approaches to taking a stance against systemic biases, human rights violations and injustices around the world. One classic strategy is to withdraw services and sever ties with the offender; examples include many corporations that have recently withdrawn from Russia. This is often a punitive approach aimed at hurting the offender economically. I believe that educational institutions can do better by adopting a reformative approach. Institutions of learning are uniquely positioned to influence the thoughts of many future generations through carefully designed curricula, catalyzing sustained change to better humanity.

Cornell, a premier educational institution, with extensive ties in China and founded on the principle of “Any person … any study” should lead by example and stand up for the rights of the oppressed people in all parts of the world — especially in areas where the University actively pursues educational efforts. As a first step, all Cornell programs affiliated with China should clearly acknowledge the ongoing genocide and subjugation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities on their website and other public-facing material. This will bring about awareness and awaken the consciousness of our community to the ongoing crisis. Next, Cornell should require students pursuing the aforementioned programs affiliated with China to take a course that discusses the ongoing tragedy in an effort to educate and skill tomorrow’s leaders to stand up against this and other genocide(s) and oppression of people. One example of such a course is ANTHR 3552: Genocide Today, offered by Prof. Magnus Fiskesjö, anthropology. Finally, Cornell has a regular stream of undergraduate and graduate students from China, often making up more than 50 percent of the total population of international students on campus. Cornell should strive to recruit people of oppressed ethnicities from China in a targeted manner as a way to empower them. The pursuit of these efforts to usher in change requires a clear value system and a strong will to follow through on what is morally right, even when inconvenient.

Efforts that bring attention to these violations by the Chinese government may not be the most economically or socio-politically prudent choices. Forward-thinking, socially progressive thoughts rarely are until popular culture and social conversations (wokeness) catch up and economic incentives follow. Furthermore, despite the University’s founding values, Cornell’s track record of proactively standing up against human rights violations, including examples of condoning exploitative labor in the construction of its Qatar campus, has been poor. However, Cornell students and faculty have served as the moral compass of the institution, keenly aware of our existence in the context of global society and advocating for socially conscious engagements. I hope the current conversation within the Brooks School awakens their collective consciousness to be a voice against oppression, to become active proponents of change and to help Cornell realize its founding vision.

Aravind Natarajan (he/him), Ph.D. ‘19 is an alumnus of Cornell. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.