In the tech world, Chamath Palihapitiya, the billionaiure venture capitalist and investor, is what some like to call a “bomb thrower”—someone who loves to say provocative, incendiary things, no matter the target. In 2017, for example, he said Facebook created “dopamine-driven feedback loops,” even though he’d been an executive at Facebook from 2007 to 2011 and was close with Mark Zuckerberg. Years later, when GameStop’s stock took off like a rocket ship thanks to the WallStreetBets Reddit forum, most investors called the chaos infantile and dangerous. Palihapitiya, however, went on CNBC and Twitter to defend it, saying the shake-up was a much-needed wake-up call to the financial establishment—even though he’s part of that establishment (he’s now worth over a billion dollars and counting, and he’s become a prime example of getting rich via SPAC, the flashy new form of going public).
When bankers and economists last year warned of the potential downfalls of, and the dangerous bubble-like frenzy around, cryptocurrencies, Palihapitiya again took to the airwaves with an outrageous statement: “I can pretty confidently say that Bitcoin, I think, has effectively replaced gold.” He has criticized politicians too, including California governor Gavin Newsom, over his taxation policies and COVID response, and former San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, in regard to his policies around housing and NIMBYism in the area. He famously hates the way Silicon Valley works and once said in an interview—and I quote—“I want to fucking dominate this industry!”
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Though others in tech do pick fights—Marc Andreessen, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, to name a few Marks—what sets Palihapitiya apart is his propensity to go after not just those who disagree with him, but people on both sides of the aisle. Palihapitiya’s bomb-throwing has made him a god to some and a pariah to others. But over the weekend he seemingly took his hell-raising a step too far when he said on his All-In podcast, in the midst of a discussion about human rights, that he simply didn’t care about the genocide of the Uyghurs, China’s predominantly Muslim minority group. “Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay,” he said. “I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.” He then reiterated his feelings with added affect: “Of all the things that I care about, it is below, my, line.” The clip made it onto Twitter and, as one would imagine, exploded.
Palihapitiya has walked things back before, and he’s even pseudo-apologized. After his 2017 attack on Facebook, he got some flak from his former employer and later said, “I genuinely believe that Facebook is a force for good in the world,” adding that his “comments were meant to start an important conversation.” This week he followed suit, saying via a Twitter statement that he “[came] across as lacking empathy” and that, as a refugee himself (he was born in Sri Lanka), he supports human rights. But critics—and this time there were plenty of them—pointed out that his statement failed to mention the Uyghurs. He has since become a meme, been continuously heckled, and, as far as I can tell, seen few people (if any) come to his defense. The Golden State Warriors, which Palihapitiya partly owns, tried to distance themselves from his remarks, saying publicly: “As a limited investor who has no day-to-day operating functions with the Warriors, Mr. Palihapitiya does not speak on behalf of our franchise, and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organization.” Virgin Galactic, where Palihapitiya is chairman of the board, also distanced itself, noting that Palihapitiya’s “comments do not reflect the views of Virgin Galactic and he does not speak on behalf of the company.” (As of publication, he’s still involved with both institutions.)
It’s estimated that China has secretly imprisoned at least a million Uyghurs in forced labor and prison camps. In December of last year, a public tribunal established by a prominent British human rights lawyer reportedly found that China had engaged in “crimes against humanity” in its treatment of the Uyghurs, including “rape, enforced sterilization, torture, imprisonment, persecution, deportation, and enforced disappearance.” And as recently as Thursday, France’s parliament passed a motion asking the government to officially label the events a “genocide” and condemn China. (China has denied all wrongdoing.) Palihapitiya’s comments seem to represent a uniquely Silicon Valley viewpoint, and there may be a reason for that: An investigation by The Information last year found that seven of Apple’s tech suppliers might have used forced labor from programs with suspected ties to China’s alleged persecution of the Uyghurs. Another report from Reuters discovered that a U.S. electronics company had “struck a deal with authorities in Xinjiang to transport hundreds of Uyghur workers to its plant in the southern Chinese city of Qinzhou.” (Per Reuters, a company spokeswoman said the firm “treated them the same as other workers in China,” adding that “it did not regard any of its employees as forced labor.”) Facebook has also turned the other way when it comes to the plight of the Uyghurs; last year the social network allowed China to run state ads that denied the abuse of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
When it comes to the “factories,” or camps, the way Uyghurs are treated is reportedly on par with a prison system. BuzzFeed devoted a lengthy five-part series to the plight of Uyghurs in these camps. The Information article noted how it wasn’t Apple alone that allegedly worked with these suppliers, but also Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and Facebook—all of which make tech gadgets in China.
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Apple—which has been emphasized in reports more than other tech companies, largely because of its size and sway—denied these allegations and told The Information that it had not found any evidence of forced labor in its supply chain. Yet the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group, found in December 2020 that a glass supplier for Apple was using forced labor from Uyghurs. “Our research shows that Apple’s use of forced labor in its supply chain goes far beyond what the company has acknowledged,” Katie Paul, the organization’s director, told The Washington Post, which reported the group’s discovery. (An Apple spokesman told the Post that the company had confirmed that the supplier hadn’t “received any labor transfers of Uyghur workers from Xinjiang,” and that it had also made sure none of its other suppliers were using Uyghur labor from the region.) The Post also wrote on how Apple had reportedly been lobbying to weaken a bill, called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, that sought to prevent forced labor in China. (An Apple spokesman told the Post that the company was “dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with dignity and respect,” adding,
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