If you could stop a genocide-would you?
In western China, right now, more than a million men, women, and children sit in reeducation camps. Mothers separated from children, forced marriages, forced sterilizations-Margaret Atwood’s fiction made a reality.
What’s to be done? Have we learned nothing? From Rwanda, from the Holocaust, from the Holodomor? The cat’s out of the bag, and the End of history is over. Finally, we can acknowledge that the future is not just greyed out liberal democracy, 2% a year GDP growth, easing ourselves into decadence. In reality, our dark 20th century never really left us after all.
Modernity and the belief in bad people are incompatible. The enlightenment has swept conflict under the rug and right out the Overton window. Hobbes, banished from the lexicon. To even conceive a world with people who are themselves, bad, is a heretical assumption. To understand the aspects of human nature that are deeply problematic is to understand the true nature of reality. American culture lulled to sleep by narcotics and video games, our senses dulled by ultra-palatable foods and 2-hour delivery. In some sense, things are better than they ever have been before; in another sense, they’re much worse. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Americans are depressed, fat, and lead lives bereft of meaning. We are reduced to larping real revolutionary change on the streets, with bats, shields, and batons. A simulacra of revolution, a cry for meaning in a world gone mad.
I recall a cool October night in 2018. Joe Biden spoke softly to a crowd I was a part of. Bathed in dim light, he rambled. He wove soft, slow, soliloquies on American Greatness. He remarked on the magnificence of our landmass. That we are surrounded by vast oceans, blessed by great mineral reserves, possessing unrivalled food production capability, the mightiest navy the world has ever seen. The Zeihan-Esque supposition? Geography is destiny. Our geopolitical rivals? Nothing to worry about. China-why worry about China… “c’mon man.”
This theory is seductive because it is easy. It’s a denial of agency-the idea that nothing can be done to challenge us. This makes our position precarious. You can’t fix problems you can’t see. If, like Biden says-we’re the greatest country in the world, why can’t we stop Uighur persecution in Xinjiang? The reason, I posit here, is that for all our technical capability, we lack the will and imagination to see it through.
In the farthest reaches of eastern North Carolina sits a massive dune of sand. Jockey’s Ridge rises out of the warm waters of the Pamlico Sound. Here, a century ago, two men from Ohio made history with the first powered flight. Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle mechanics-yet they were the first to fly. Imagine the expectations for a bicycle mechanic today. Produce a plane-are you kidding me? That’s for the experts, the technocrats. The institutionalization of science, of technology, of politics, has eroded our capability to achieve the American greatness we, as a people, are destined for. Science, once a process of obtaining truth-has become a bloated bureaucratic institution, a tool for politicians. . When our ruling class says “trust science” they don’t mean “trust the process of inquiry”, they mean “trust our experts.” Somehow, we have gone from a culture that encourages bicycle mechanics to invent an airplane to American institutions that can no longer prevent planes many times more advanced from diving straight into the ground. (Really like this bit.)
The belief, the conceit, is that only experts can manipulate reality. But while experts have gotten us into this mess, they won’t get us out. This is not to denigrate experts, but the bureaucracies in which they work have become sick-sick enough that our planes fall out of the sky, and our factories that produce life-saving PPE have been shipped off our continent long ago. Their bureaucracies and their selection mechanisms have become corrupt, and sclerotic. What is to be done?
Stopping a genocide.
American military might is now too far behind to stop the genocide. Our carriers can be shot out of the water, with advanced surface to surface Chinese missiles. Tariffs won’t work either-just look at North Korea. but with a little imagination-a plan from me, a 26-year-old technologist emerges.
First, we need to visualize the problem as a chessboard. Each player has strategic pieces-some are stronger than others. Here, we want to understand how to incentivize the PRC to close the camps and allow Xinjiang a level of autonomy it rightly deserves. Bludgeoning them into submission won’t work. Attacking the PRC, whether rhetorically or physically will get us nowhere. The only way for us to avert a genocide is to alter the incentive structure, in such a way that it is easy and graceful for the PRC to change course. Attacking will just lead to path dependence for the CCP.
First, our strengths. Currently, America’s most powerful institutions are our worldwide entertainment and corporations. Hollywood, the NBA, Disney. These institutions have soft power that matters to a lot of people overseas. When I worked in China, I was always amazed at how popular the NBA was. The finals played on almost every TV and billboard I saw. With over 600 million viewers in China, the NBA is a cultural behemoth. It is important to note that China is a rising power, with a burgeoning middle class. This middle class finally has time to consume entertainment-and what a luxury it is.
America has a monopoly on the best basketball played anywhere. It’s quality is unsurpassed. Paragraph 1.1 of the Wikipedia page on Olympic basketball is aptly entitled “American Dominance.” A monopoly gives you market power. You can squash competitors, and you can force people to obey your will. In this way, the NBA has power, and I propose that it use it to solve a genocide.
The plan is quite simple. Adam Silver contacts the CCP, and requests that they start treating Uighurs decently, with a list of specific demands- let everyone go, and start over as if nothing ever happened. There is no need for this to be violent: everyone who was involved (police officers, bureaucrats, administrators) will be given new positions elsewhere and taken care of appropriately. The camps will be demolished, and each individual sent home. Mr Silver will do this respectfully, there is no need to be ugly, and without disrespect to the CCP’s power in mainland China.
If they refuse, the commissioner’s next move will be to offer alternatives. A full-scale PR nightmare. We will publicly embrace the CCP, and Chinese people. No hate for either (or Xi himself), but we will pack our stands with Uighur refugees, and activists. We will put #freeuighurs on the court at every game, and we will continue to do this until the situation resolves to our liking.
The CCP can try to ban the NBA, but it will face serious backlash. The party has experienced this before. When things are very unpopular, they try to fix them. 600 million fans of the NBA want to watch basketball, and even only a minority are diehard fans, those diehard fans will make their displeasure known, and it would hardly prove expedient to throw half the country into camps if they disagree with you.
As I like to say, “hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned.”
The worst-case scenario here is that China really does successfully ban the league. I find this eventuality unlikely, but this is where the State Department enters. We can organize a group that writes an insurance policy for the NBA-you lose revenue, we’ll cover your costs. Putting this together, we could make it a no-lose situation for the NBA.
This strategy, if implemented, has a high chance of success- in fact, it may have the highest chance of success that currently exists in the problem space. Tariffs don’t work, sanctions don’t work, military force won’t work, but maybe, just maybe, asking nicely, while carrying cultural clout of American basketball might.