← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

On the Morality of Rewriting History

aerial satellite 3d rendering of Hong Kong separated by water

China is pushing for the use of new textbooks, textbooks which will deny that Hong Kong was ever a British colony. The textbooks, which are in the process of being reviewed for approval by teachers, principles, and others affiliated with Hong Kong Bureau of education, would be implemented as curriculum this fall if approved.

These books contain a new narrative about British occupation of Hong Kong, a narrative that will rewrite the previous story that Hong Kong was “lawfully” occupied as a British colony until 1997. The new narrative maintains that Hong Kong was never a British colony and was instead always a part of China. The New York Times, which reviewed teachers’ editions of the new textbooks, quotes the following excerpt: “The British aggression violated the principles of international law so its occupation of Hong Kong region should not have been recognized as lawful.”

These revisions have been in the making for some time and have been roundly criticized by the Professional Teachers’ Union in Hong Kong as “political censorship.” The Bureau, however, rejoined that the changes will “help students develop positive values.”

This push for a new narrative generates a crucial moment for pro-democracy advocates inside and out of China.

One desired effect of this new narrative is that Hong Kong has never been apart from China, so there is no historical basis on which to claim that Hong Kong should continue to be independently and democratically run.

This isn’t the case, however, and would renege on an historic obligation. As Tiffany May writes for The New York Times, “Under the terms of the 1997 handover negotiated with Britain, China had agreed that the social and economic systems of the territory would remain unchanged for 50 years after resuming sovereignty.” Another desired effect of the narrative is that the future generation will be raised patriotic, loyal to China. Indeed, to enforce such “positive values,” students (potentially as young as kindergarteners) will be taught of a new law that permits authorities to deliver prison sentences to those who oppose Beijing.

There are several issues at stake with the question of whether China (that is, Beijing) should rewrite Hong Kong’s history.

In general, to discuss whether something morally should or ought to happen, there is a first question of whether something is morally permissible. If some action isn’t morally permissible, then we ought not to do it; however, even though an action is morally permissible, it does not follow that we ought to do the action. For example, if we conclude that limiting free speech is morally permissible in a certain circumstance, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we ought to limit free speech in that circumstance. Of course, if something ought to happen, this presupposes and requires that whatever ought to happen is morally permissible.

In asking particularly whether Beijing should re-write Hong Kong’s history, one relevant question is whether there are any permissible limitations of freedom of speech, and if so, whether this case is justified.

Part of the new laws permit severe punishment for criticism of or dissent from Beijing. Some in favor of the new laws and textbooks have argued that freedom comes with certain obligations and responsibilities, such as the primary obligation to one’s country. Those in opposition might argue that, while there are certain obligations to one country, these obligations are not relevant in this case. For the obligation to support one’s country is not exclusive of criticizing its present political/societal/economic structure. In fact, criticism might be a sign of an individual’s loyalty in that the individual may desire to change the present situation for the better. In terms of permissibility, then, a special obligation to a nation does not make it impermissible to critique that nation. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.

Closely related to the topic of free speech is the question of whether limiting freedom of thought is ever permissible. The issues of freedom of speech and thought certainly overlap: the latter necessarily affects the ability to speak on certain topics, and the former would inevitably affect the ability to think on certain topics. And the revision of textbooks, including the elimination of information and not solely the addition of a perspective, seems to classify at least as a limitation on thought.

As George Orwell’s novel 1984 has instructed us, the revision of history practically inhibits the future generations (and perhaps present generations) from discussing and knowing history. It is unclear whether this is ever permissible, though it clearly is impermissible in the case that it is factually inaccurate. In the case of Beijing denying Hong Kong’s former status as a colony, this certainly seems to be the case. Of course, it is another matter whether it was morally correct for Britain to have occupied Hong Kong.

While I only suggested some provisional answers to the above questions, it is imperative to answer these questions to understand some of the relevant moral landscape in rewriting history.

Moral Lessons from the Meng Wanzhou Affair?

airplane boarding on Xi'an airport runway

Now that Meng Wanzhou has finally returned home to China and Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been released from Chinese custody, a situation has been brought to a close which incited a great deal of moral controversy. The two Canadians were believed to be taken into detention in retribution for the arrest and detention of Meng, and given the state of relations between the U.S. and Canada, many wondered whether simply releasing Meng in exchange for the release of the two Michaels would simply be a better alternative. Last year, I covered some of the ethical concerns involved with this situation. But in light of the fact that the affair has now been settled, what is the status of these ethical issues in hindsight?

To briefly recap the situation, Meng was arrested by the RCMP in December 2018 at the request of the United States who charged her with conspiracy to commit fraud. After the U.S. requested extradition, the matter was placed before Canadian courts. That same month China detained two Canadians named Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who were later charged with espionage. The move by China has been taken to be retaliation for the arrest of Wanzhou after they threatened “grave consequences” for Canada and despite the fact that China insists that the arrest of the Michaels is unrelated. And, while Meng was placed on house arrest and forced to wear an ankle monitor while living in a Vancouver mansion, the two Michaels were subjected to hours of interrogation every day, were not permitted to go outside, and were limited in their ability to talk to their families.

As this situation stretched from weeks into years, many Canadians took the position that Canada should have resisted American calls for the arrest and extradition of Meng, or should have released her in exchange for the release of the Canadians. This proposal created a great deal of moral debate about the rule of law, arbitrary detention, and the potential precedents such a move might set in the world of “hostage politics.”

But, now the situation has been resolved. On September 24th, the Department of Justice announced that a deferred prosecution agreement had been reached with Meng which led to the withdrawal of its extradition request against her. That day, Meng boarded a plane and arrived in China after spending more than 1000 days under house arrest. On the same day, in an apparently unrelated sequence of events, China released the two Michaels “for medical reasons” who were then flown home to Canada.

It is worth noting that many believe that this situation was sparked by the United States as a politically motivated tool in their trade war with China. This is supported by remarks made by then President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who suggested that they could intervene in the case for the sake of securing trade and by the fact that the arrest was unprecedented. China’s position, in response, is that this was politically motivated and that Canada conspired with the United States. Legal experts on extradition have called the case against Meng a “silly” “political type of enterprise.” Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien claimed that the “United States played a trick on Canada by forcing Ottawa to arrest Ms. Meng,” and many more prominent Canadians called on Meng to be released and a prisoner exchange arranged or who shared the view that this was a political matter and not a legal one. Thus, Canadians were faced with the dilemma of either releasing Meng and angering the United States or holding Meng and endangering its own citizens.

As I noted in my previous article on the subject, the Government of Canada’s position has always been that this is a legal matter falling under an independent judiciary, even accusing China of failing to understand such a concept. Meng, so the claim goes, had been charged with a crime and the extradition and trial process must be followed to preserve “the rule of law.” Thus, it would be a violation of such principles to offer to release Meng arbitrarily in order to secure a “hostage exchange.” A second argument was made that agreeing to release Meng in exchange for the two Michaels would set a bad precedent. Justin Trudeau argued that such an exchange would send a message to China that all they or anyone else had to do was arrest Canadians in order to pressure the Canadian Government and that this would put millions at risk.

So, how did this situation resolve itself? After several months of court proceedings the Justice Department offered Meng a deferred prosecution deal on the condition that she admit guilt in misrepresenting efforts of Huawei to circumvent sanctions against Iran. According to the Americans, there was “no link” between the deferral agreement and the desire to secure the release of the Michaels. After which, she was released in Canada and sent back to China. Simultaneously, after securing the “guilt” of the two Michaels for espionage weeks prior, China decided to release the two Michaels on bail for “health reasons” and they were subsequently sent back to Canada. Canada, the U.S. and China have all insisted that there was no deal despite the entire affair seeming “highly choreographed.”

Indeed, many see the entire affair as nothing but a prisoner exchange or “hostage swap.” Of course, we may not know for sure what exactly happened. The U.S. claims that the decision was reached by the Department of Justice free from political tampering. China claims that they too were following the rule of law in finding the two Michaels guilty after their confession and later releasing them. But if this just was a prisoner swap in the end, what does this mean for those who wished to stand on principle or prevent the establishment of a precedent?

First, let’s consider that each side is being truthful: the resolution to this case was purely a legal matter, and that this was, as some believe, a triumph for the rule of law. It is difficult to see how. There is no legal consensus that the case against Meng wasn’t politically motivated to begin with. So, the fact that the issue was settled in a manner consistent with legal procedure doesn’t support the idea that this was a victory for the rule of law. If anything, we are still left with questions about whether the law is being used in an arbitrary way for political ends. But, there is also the public perception of the affair to consider as well. Given the seemingly suspicious nature of the exchange, one wonders whether the public will see this as a success for the rule of law?

On the other hand, if there was some sort of coordination; if, in the end, this situation was only settled by an exchange, then what is the point of standing on principle for the rule of law or because you are worried about setting a bad precedent? To what ends did it serve to insist on such principles just to engage in an exchange anyways? Could a great deal of suffering have been avoided to achieve a similar result? Did, at the end of the day, the detention of Meng and the two Michaels actually achieve anything as morally important as it ultimately cost in moral terms? As my previous article covered, it was always a murky argument that the rule of law would not permit the Canadian Government to facilitate Meng’s release, so the notion that because Canada stuck it out until legal proceedings could conclude that this was thereby a victory of the rule of law is not certain either.

Either way, this doesn’t seem like a great principled victory for the rule of law. Perhaps if there is a moral lesson to be learned for Canada it is that principles can be great ideals, but that their application must factor in the situation they are applied to. This is particularly true if, as in this case, it seems that following the rule of law in the way the Canadian government chose to conceive of such a principle only served to deny Canadians their rights for years.

How Can the 2022 Olympic Games Remain Neutral?

photograph of runner statues in Beijing's Olympic Park

After a year of isolation for most everyone around the world, there is hope that we will get back to a  more normal existence thanks to the continued roll-out of vaccines. Traditions that were impossible with coronavirus might now be making a comeback, and this includes the internationally-beloved Olympic Games. While the Tokyo 2021 Olympics are desperately trying to make the show go on while Japan struggles with a rise in infections, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is already facing challenges to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. Although the city won the bid to host the games in 2015 there has been an intense wave of criticism with China’s recent actions towards their own people. When Beijing was one of two countries on the ticket to win the bid for next years’ Olympics, the IOC passed reforms aimed at protecting human rights in the host countries. This was after the Sochi 2014 Olympics where there were mass violations of human rights, especially against migrant workers who came to Sochi to help build the facilities for the Olympics. In an attempt to prevent a similar disaster in the future, the IOC passed a number of reforms. Thus far, however, these measures have proven ineffective in preventing human rights violations. Despite China currently committing atrocities against their own citizens, the IOC continues to support them as the host country.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have characterized China’s actions against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region as “genocide.” Since 2019, over one million Uyghurs have been held in “re-education” camps, which are essentially forced assimilation camps where there have been reports of physical abuse, torture, and forced sterilizations. China has denied these allegations and instead claimed that the camps teach job skills as well as the Chinese language. Reports, however, indicate that the Uyghur population, a minority ethnic group, is under continued attack by the Chinese government. These actions represent a clear violation of the reforms the IOC passed in 2015.

Additionally, the government in Beijing has focused their authoritarian energy on Hong Kong, a region that traditionally enjoyed a democratic-like leadership because of former British rule. Recently, that system has essentially collapsed as the government has passed laws placing all the political power of Hong Kong firmly back in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. This has led to arrests of pro-democracy leaders and human rights activists. Those who escaped are now hiding in exile. As another component of the government’s desire to see a completely unified China, the central government might make Taiwan, who considers itself independent from China, it’s next target. In addition, the Chinese government continues its political control over Tibet, despite the decades-long movement for a free Tibet. Taken together, there is overwhelming evidence that China is currently violating, and will continue to violate, the rights of those they don’t see as fully pro-China.

This situation makes the IOC’s continued support of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing increasingly difficult to justify. Already, over 180 organizations have called for a boycott. In response, the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, has insisted that the IOC must remain neutral. This position should perhaps not come as a surprise as the IOC allowed for Nazi Germany to hold the 1936 Olympics, when their anti-semitic policies were well-known around the world. The Nazi regime ensured visitors would receive a picture-perfect look of Germany, one where everyone was welcomed and accepted — a very far cry from the reality. Germany played the part so well that the Games helped legitimize the Nazi regime and earn appeasement from the rest of the world. Eleven Olympic athletes would die in the Holocaust just a few years later. While the Berlin Games were decades ago, the IOC appears to still not have learned their dangerous lesson and recognized the legitimizing power that the Olympics can bring to a country actively violating the rights of millions of people. This power makes it impossible for the IOC to be truly “neutral” in these violations; refusing to move the Olympic venue makes them complicit in the ongoing violence against people in China.

The decision to hold the games in Beijing is in direct opposition to the spirit and mission of the IOC. By their very own definition, Olympism represents a“philosophy of life” for the Olympics which seeks “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” That vision also consists of “building a better world through sport.” While these inspirational statements gesture at universal values and global commitments, the committee’s actions look very different. Besides refusing to move the location of the 2022 Olympics, the IOC has also urged countries not to protest these games on the grounds that such demonstrations are not effective in changing policy. While the IOC claims they are fully supportive of freedom of expression, they continue to uphold Rule 50, which is meant to “keep the field of play, Olympic village and the podium neutral.” In reality, this measure merely bars athletes from expressing dissent.

When pressed to draw lines, the committee has reflexively responded that no country should be quick to cast the first stone: “where would you celebrate the games if you take that attitude?” Such deflections make a darker point: while countries like Britain and the U.S. chose to confront Nazi extremism, both have a violent past of colonization and slavery of their own to reckon with. Countries around the world have their own histories, current realities, and potential futures of human rights conflicts. It might be nearly impossible to find a country completely free of blame.

But this does not mean that we must stand idly by. We should instead recognize that it is impossible to remain neutral in today’s world. While sports may be a cathartic and temporary relief from the stress of reality for a lot of people, it is a true privilege to be able to enjoy that relief. There are too many lives, cultures, and countries at risk for the IOC to ignore China’s treatment of its citizens and behavior toward its neighbors. If the committee truly wants to live up to their mission of creating a better world through sport, then they need to acknowledge the lived realities of people being silenced and abused around the world and recognize the impact the Games have in legitimizing those actions and hiding that abuse.

Let Hongkongers In

photograph of peaceful protest in Sheung Shui district arms raised

In 1997, Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to Chinese possession under the guidelines set forth in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Declaration established rules whereby Hong Kong which would eventually become part of China once more would retain their legal and administrative systems distinct from those in mainland China known as ‘one country, two systems’ for the next 50 years (from the signing of the treaty).

The one country, two system policy came to a premature and unfortunate end, however, with the recent passage of a new security law in the Chinese legislature that curtails political and civil freedoms — banning secession, subverting state power, terrorism, foreign intervention, and allowing mainland China’s security agencies to operate in the city — the case continues to grow stronger for letting Hongkongers migrate to the United States. This policy would be an economic boon for the United States, help the people of Hong Kong, and stick it to mainland China. Much as we would have a moral obligation to save a small child drowning in a shallow pond — given that we could intervene with little or no risk to ourselves — we have an obligation to offer Hong Kong a hand, contrary to what naysayers may claim. Allow me to make the case.

Many believe there are compelling reasons to favor low levels of immigration because, say, higher immigration would harm workers. But the reverse is true: economists estimate that if rich nations, like the United States and Canada, opened their borders to peaceful, law-abiding immigrants, the world would be trillions of dollars richer. The economic gains of open borders would be so substantial that many costs of such a policy would be minor compared to the gains, as economist Bryan Caplan cleverly argues in his graphic non-fiction book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Allowing immigrants, even those from poor nations with lackluster institutions, to emigrate to rich nations with robust institutions would magnify their productivity, and benefit host nations — e.g., just as the same worker would be more productive with a computer than a mere typewriter.

Many critics object that open borders will result in immigrants taking jobs from natives, or that they lack similar political values that would undercut essential institutions like democracy or the market, or even that they would bankrupt social welfare programs. But every objection, unconvincing as it is under ordinary conditions given the vast wealth liberalizing immigration would create, is even more underwhelming when applied to immigration from Hong Kong. We should review these objections to increased immigration generally, and with respect to Hongkongers specifically.

Many critics of relaxed immigration worry it harms workers, especially low-skilled workers — by, in part, increasing the supply of cheap labor. However, the empirical evidence shows that this isn’t true: according to recent U.S. Census Bureau (2011) data, most Americans aren’t low-skilled — many are at least high school graduates — and greater levels of immigration hurt low-skilled workers, but only slightly in the short term, and benefit everyone else. (Most Americans are customers of new immigrants, not competitors). Other critics worry immigrants will take advantage of social welfare programs, thereby straining their limited resources. As it happens though, the evidence doesn’t bear this out either: good evidence of widespread abuse is lacking, and even on the most pessimistic figures, higher immigration would cost American families but a few dollars a month in taxes to fund the welfare state. This number leaves off the sizeable economic gains from liberalized immigration we discussed earlier.

Finally, with respect to immigrants from Hong Kong, some may worry letting Hongkongers in would undercut our political institutions — they may, for instance, hold values that are antithetical to the liberalism undergirding our society. However, based on the available evidence, Hongkongers tend to be pro-democracy. And this trend has been increasing in recent years — presumably in part because of greater pressure Beijing has exerted over the region. In addition, many Hongkongers speak English, and they tend to be well-educated with a high college graduation rate. And finally, their legal system is based on English common law, and local laws codified in the Laws of Hong Kong — both the United States and Hong Kong have similar legal systems as former British colonies. Together, these factors cast doubt on the claim that Hong Kong immigration would be a bad idea, and instead put the onus on critics to explain why letting Hongkongers in would be sufficiently bad to justify keeping them out.

The conflict between the Chinese government and free nations isn’t merely about trade policy or shipping routes in the South China Sea. It includes how other nations, as onlookers, are influenced by China and the US in crafting their internal policies, supporting international law, and securing civil liberties – things like peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to criticize the government. We often take these things for granted, but events in Hong Kong are a stark reminder that we shouldn’t. Freedom isn’t free, but we can lend it a helping hand, by responding to China’s aggression with a positive-sum approach that would benefit both Hongkongers and the US.

The Ethical Dilemma of Extraditing Meng Wanzhou

photograph of Meng Wanzhou on a moblie phone at business function

When students take an introductory ethics course, they are often given thought experiments where they are asked to consider whether it is morally acceptable to sacrifice a few for the interests of the many. Often these thought experiments are fanciful — a running trolley, a South American dictator telling you to choose one person to die rather than twenty — but problems like this can reflect real world choices that must be made. The recent example of the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou is one such case where the ethical road ahead is unclear and solving the dilemma may require sacrifice in the name of the “greater good.”

Wanzhou is the deputy chair of the board and CFO of Huawei, the company founded by her father Ren Zhengfei. In late 2018 she was arrested by the RCMP in Vancouver at the request of the United Stated for conspiracy to commit fraud. The case is owing to the close links between Huawei and Skycom, a company that claimed to be a fully independent but that may be entirely controlled by Huawei. Meng is charged with engaging in a scheme to obtain goods and technology as well as transferring money through Skycom in violation of international sanctions against Iran. The United States has formally requested extradition of Meng, with the matter now before Canadian courts.

The case is complicated by several other important factors. The Chinese government protested to the Canadian ambassador and threatened “grave consequences” for the arrest. Two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been arrested and detailed in China for endangering state security in a move seen as retaliation against the arrest of Meng. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the arrests arbitrary. Meng has been released on bail, but wears an ankle monitor and has surrendered her passport. She is living in Vancouver in a $13 million-dollar mansion. Kovig and Spavor on the other hand were interrogated for six to eight hours a day for months, kept under 24-hour artificial lighting without being able to go outside, and were only able to have monthly consular meetings without being able to talk to friends or family. There is also the case of Robert Schellenberg, initially found guilty of smuggling drugs and sentenced to 15 years only to be hastily retried and sentenced to death. It’s been intimated that the fate of these three Canadians Kovig, Spavor, and Schellenberg rests on the Canadian government’s treatment of Meng.

Meng’s extradition case recently suffered a setback after a British Columbia court ruled that the charges met the double criminality criteria for extradition. Meng’s legal team argued that since Canada did not have sanctions similar to those the United States had against Iran, she isn’t being charged with something that would be a crime in Canada. The ruling held that the charges are about fraud, which is a crime in Canada. Despite this, the Canadian government possesses the ability to set Meng free. Under extradition law, Canada’s justice minister may at any time intervene and withdraw the government’s support for the case which would allow Meng to return home and possibly get the release of detained Canadians and smooth out relations.

In the meantime, there is very little upside for Canada to detain Meng. Canada-Chinese relations have been hurt by the affair, and experts have claimed that this is likely to affect trade talks and lead to a reduction in tourism and investment in the Canadian economy. China has apparently not tried to retaliate against the U.S. due to their desire to improve their relationship. Canada, meanwhile, has been squeezed between the U.S. and China in an issue that some experts believe is a direct result of their ongoing trade war. Unsurprisingly, there are a significant number of Canadians who would rather be rid of the matter. In 2019 a poll found that 45% of Canadians believe that Canada should have resisted the U.S. request and not arrested Meng at all. A group of over a dozen prominent former Canadian politicians and policy advisors from different political parties have issued an open letter calling on the Trudeau government to release Meng in the hopes of securing the release of Kovig and Spavor, even if it means straining U.S.-Canada relations.

So what reason is there for Canada to not release Meng immediately? One of the reasons, and the one touted by the Trudeau government, is that it would be inappropriate for the government to intervene with a matter before the courts and that the rule of law should be respected. Trudeau has stated that “Canada has an independent judiciary and these processes will unfold independently of any political pressure, including by foreign governments.” Indeed, the reliance on an independent judiciary to settle the matter has been labelled a win for the rule of law. Despite this claim, those seeking Meng’s release have cited the opinion of a lawyer well-versed in extradition proceedings who notes that government discretion is “explicitly codified” in the law and that intervention would not endanger judicial independence and would be consistent with the rule of law.

But the Trudeau government, and others, have also argued that releasing Meng on the condition of securing the release of Spovor and Kovig would set a bad precedent. The government believes that cancelling the extradition process for Meng would put “millions” of Canadians in danger. Trudeau has argued that

“The idea of solving a short-term situation by creating a precedent that demonstrates to China that all they or another country has to do is randomly arrest a handful of Canadians to put political pressure on a government to do what (they) want…would endanger the millions of Canadians who live and travel overseas every year.”

On the other hand, the idea that this would set a precedent smells of a slippery slope fallacy. One way to avoid situations like this would be to practice more restraint regarding who is (and is not) detained. Also, we need to consider the unique qualities particular to the situation. How many nations would likely try to detain traveling Canadians if they have a dispute with the Canadian government? Would releasing Meng in this case actually cause this to happen again? What countries would likely do this? What issues would likely prompt governments to do this? While we are considering these things, we may also consider how a concept like “rule of law” is interpreted. As was pointed out during the standoff with indigenous groups back in February, the concept is not singular, universal, or absolute. What are the assumptions we make in this case when we interpret the concept of “rule of law” in this case?

There is also the matter of Spovor and Kovig and whether they may be sacrificed for such principles and precedents. Kovig’s wife Vina Nadjibulla does not agree with the government’s refusal to intervene, arguing that we can both protect Canadians and secure the release of her husband. She notes, “There is no cost-free solution. We have to pay a price. The question becomes, who pays the price, and at the moment Michael Kovrig and Michael Spovor are paying that price.”

Finally, there is also the risk of violating agreements with the U.S. over extradition. Canada and the U.S. are allies and it makes sense to not antagonize America for the benefit of China. However, given the U.S. administration’s “America First” motto, one wonders whether the favor would be returned if the shoe were on the other foot. Indeed, there is a sense that “Washington is using Canada in its trade battle with China.” Even President Trump has mused about using Meng as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, suggesting that this process may not be about the rule of law at all, despite John Bolton’s recent claim that the criminal charges are not politically motivated.

As Nadjibulla noted, there is no cost-free solution, and this is essentially at the heart of all moral dilemmas. The goals Canada is trying to achieve in ending the situation are incompatible. What combination of ends are the right balance is difficult, and it will require determining how much value we place on a given conception of the rule of law, economic gains and losses, creating political tensions (what kinds? with who?), creating possible dangerous precedents, and the suffering of those few who are detained.

Uighur Genocide and the Wrong of Population Control

photograph of four Uighur women, one with a baby

An AP investigation has confirmed complaints from Uighur women that China has been sterilizing them against their will, and in fact discovered that these assaults have been more widespread than previously thought.

Since 2016, an estimated 1 million or more Uighurs have been detained in “re-education” camps. The new investigation highlights the relationship between pregnancy, fertility, and the threat of the camps: “Uighur women and other ethnic minorities are being threatened with internment in the camps for refusing to abort pregnancies that exceed birth quotas [….] Women who had fewer than the legally permitted limit of two children were involuntarily fitted with intrauterine contraceptives.”

By interfering with the reproductive choices of the potential parents, the Chinese government is interfering with the bodily integrity of individuals, and thus violating basic moral principles and fundamental human rights. China is specifically targeting a particular ethnic group with a policy that infringes on individuals’ reproductive autonomy. These acts constitute genocide according to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.

The first morally problematic feature of China’s policies is also the most commonplace and simple: government representatives are acting on members of the community against their will. This infringement of bodily autonomy is assault. There are a very limited number of situations where it is permissible to interfere with someone’s body absent consent, but these cases clearly do not qualify. Moreover, these policies interfere with people’s private desires regarding the formation of a family unit. Family identity and relationships can inform a great deal of one’s priorities and self-understanding; to take those relationships, networks, and choices away from individuals is a particular kind of harm.

Secondly, it is clear that these policies are a further element of oppression towards a population that China has been systematically disadvantaging for years. Uighurs in China have been isolated, surveilled, put into work and re-education camps, and exposed to varieties of mental and physical harms. The group subject to these forced sterilizations has been the target before of racist, bigoted policies aimed at affecting its population and the promulgation of its community in the future.

Given these policies aims and outcomes, China actions constitute genocide against the Uighurs. Many consider genocide to be limited to violent killings with the intent to eliminate an ethnic, racial, or religious minority, as in Myanmar (against Rohingya) in 2016 and again in 2018, or in Somalia (against Isaaqs)1987-8, in Rwanda (against Tutsis) 1994, in Bosnia (against Bosniaks) 1995, by ISIL (against Yazidis) 2014…. However, there are more ways to eliminate a group of people beyond presenting its members with a violent death.

Given that the act of sterilization is targeted towards an unwanted, oppressed community and, by its nature, serves to prevent births in the group and thereby limit its future population, China’s forcible sterilization of members of the Uighur population represents an act of genocide. As the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect states, “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such: …d. imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

China is far from the first government body that has used the interference and control of reproduction, or the breaking down of the family unit, as a way to undermine or even eliminate an ethnicity or cultural group. Recent examples include:

  • In the fall of 2018, a group of Indigenous Canadian women filed a class-action suit against Saskatoon Health Authority, the provincial and federal governments, and some medical professionals claiming that doctors forcibly sterilized them over several decades, through the 2000s.
  • In the United States in the 20th century, 20,000 the government funded sterilizations performed in California disproportionately targeting African Americans and Latinos.
  • Further, California prisons have authorized sterilizations of nearly 150 female inmates between 2006 and 2010.  The state paid doctors $147,460 to perform tubal ligations that former inmates say were done under coercion.
  • In 2003, an investigative report documented grave human rights violations against Romani women in Slovakia, that 110 Romani women in Slovakia were forcibly or coercively sterilized, or had strong indications that they had been sterilized.

China’s policies in the Xinjian region actually qualify for genocide under two defining acts. The UN Article outlining crimes of genocide that follows just after that cited above states that, “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is a crime of genocide. This highlights further concerns of China’s policies towards Uighurs and also brings the behavior of many governments into question.

As mentioned above, China has been sending ethnic minorities, Uighurs prominent among them, to re-education and work camps. A primary function of these camps includes separating children from there family and community in order to inculcate them in the “Chinese” mode of life. From 2017-2019, thousands of children in the Xinjiang region were separated from their parents in a “systematic campaign of social re-engineering and cultural genocide.” In these schools, children are banned from speaking their Uighur language and are taught instead Chinese mannerisms, customs, and language. As German researcher Dr. Adrian Zenz shares with The Independent, “China has implemented the “weaponisation of education and social care systems” in order to cut off minority children from their roots. “Boarding schools provide the ideal context for a sustained cultural re-engineering of minority societies.”

Again, China is not alone in these tactics. Into the 20th and 21st century, the United States has performed similar operations.

  • The United States has relocated children away from their parents multiple times throughout its history as a way of preserving its deluded sense of national identity. From 1860 to 1978, the boarding schools for Indigenous Americans had the express purpose to separate children from their families and cultures and indoctrinate them in the government’s ideas of American-ness. Thousands of children.
  • In the last decades, the United States has performed family separation and detention operations at the southern border in the name of National Security but with barely concealed xenophobia and racism. From November 2017 to April 2018, The New York Times reported that the United States had already removed an estimated 700 children from their families at the southern border. Genocide Watch reports, “According to Trump administration statistics, 2,342 children were separated from their families as a result of criminal prosecution between May 5 and June 9, 2018, bringing the total number of children forcibly separated from their families to over 3,000, though no reliable figure is easily available. These children are now scattered across the United States in a confusing mixture of detention facilities and foster home arrangements.”

Retaining control of the family and reproduction as the means of preserving the cultural or ethnic identity of a community is critical. When young members of the community are separated and immersed in another community entirely, their original community is robbed of members, and that individual loses those deep connections. When new members can no longer continue the existence of the community across generations, the interference succeeds at eliminating these communities’ very existence.

In morally assessing the sterilization practices of China on the oppressed Uighur population, it is important to have the appropriate tools to articulate the specific injustice of these policies. That is the goal of the UN declaration, which identifies and underscores the seriousness of actions like forced sterilization.

But what relevant moral weight is added by labeling such actions ‘genocide’ as opposed to merely ‘assault’? When I assault you against your will, moral theorists of any stripe can say “bad!” and explain why it was morally wrong. When we add the context that this assault took away important choices, moral theorists might still be able to account for this being worse than some other harms: because the part of one’s life that involves such choices is important, harming the ability to control it increases the relevant harm. So, perhaps, we could respond “BAD!” to express our moral assessment.

It may become a bit tricky from here. Intuitively, that the harm is being targeted at an individual because of who they are, or because of the group they are a member of, many theories this is not only morally relevant, but that it makes the harm worse. This amplification of wrong is furthered when the harm isn’t just targeting someone based on their identity, but when that targeting is meant to eliminate the person and group’s existence.

But for traditional utilitarians, the oppression or prejudice involved in a harm doesn’t necessarily add to the harm experienced by the individual. Harms will differ for the utilitarian in degree if 1) more individuals are harmed, or 2) the harm is worse, either straightforwardly like a scratch versus a stab, or in a manner similar to that articulated above where perhaps a physical assault might begin to approximate an anesthetized tubal ligation, but the latter comes with more life import.

This has been one of the core critiques of utilitarianism by feminist philosophers. As long as an action produces more harm than good, it is morally permissible. We could imagine a world where prejudice, bigotry, and oppression of some minority communities results in an overall benefit to the population as a whole (just so long as the detractions occur within minority communities). In its simplest form, utilitarianism seems to lack the moral structure to make sense of how this is an unjust and immoral state of affairs. Imagine, for instance, that a library excludes some from entering (women, or non-white people, etc.). Helpful classmates may provide all the copies of the material you need, and therefore no harm is ever accrued by the policy, yet there exists morally wrong behavior and actions. The wrongness of the exclusionary policy isn’t just the harm to those excluded, but lies within the structure of the policy itself — a feature that utilitarianism can struggle to account for.

What this means is that not all moral theories will agree that the charge of genocide possesses some unique moral weight. In order to make China’s policy of forced sterilization as poignantly impermissible to utilitarians, for instance, one need only show that the harms of the policies outweigh the benefits — this does not seem a tall order.

Indeed, for the host of international wrongs listed above, it cannot escape any moral theory that grave wrongs are being committed. According to the United Nations, a major body that passes for international standards of crime and responsibility, countless lives are being abused in ways that cannot be tolerated regardless of the language we use.

The Ethical Ramifications of Legalizing the Exotic Wildlife Trade

Photo of a rhino horn and several products claiming to have rhino horn in them

Recently China has taken steps towards preserving exotic wildlife that have become endangered species. In 2017, China closed its market of ivory to protect African elephants and stop the illegal wildlife trade. This step commenced “China’s reputation as a leader of conservation” according to a Tiger Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency.  However, as of October 29, 2018, the state Council, under Premier Li Kequiang, made a public decision to permit the controlled sale of rhino horns and tiger bones for research or traditional medicine. In doing so, they ended the 25-year-old ban of these products. The announcement discloses that “Rhino horns and tiger bones used in medical research or in healing can only be obtained from farmed rhinos and tigers,” restricting the open trade to only legal farms and not risking the remaining wild endangered populations. Conservationists, such as the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), consider this a major hindrance for the exotic animal populations.

Conservationists argue that this new law could lead to a surge of illegal wildlife hunting and trading which would further threaten the already vulnerable animal population. This legal market gives the illegal transactions a place to hide. “The resumption of a legal market for these products is an enormous setback to efforts to protect tigers and rhinos in the wild,” says Margaret Kinnaird, of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Selling legal rhino horns and tiger bones signals that it is ethically okay to buy the products. The price of a rhino horn has peaked at $65,000 per kg, which is already more valuable than gold and elephant ivory. Today, at least three rhinos die per day because of hunting for their horns. It is expected that as the demand rises for this trade, the threatened population will continue to decline. Speaking on behalf of WWF, Leigh Henry, Director of Wildlife Policy, “urgently calls on China to maintain the ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade which has been so critical in conserving these iconic species. This should be expanded to cover trade in all tiger parts and products.” Conservationists clearly argue the value of protecting the wildlife, such as tigers and rhinos.

An important aspect of the new law is that the rhino horns and tiger bones can only come from farms. This approach has also been promoted by South Africa and other African governments that have been encouraging private farming of exotic animals.  The World Wildlife Fund says there are fewer than 4,000 tigers living in the wild, but there are some 6,000 captive tigers, farmed in about 200 government-sanctioned locations across China. Farms that house these wild populations could be protecting them from extinction. To support this, Lu Kang, the foreign ministry spokesman, said that China’s 1993 ban on the products did not take into account the “reasonable needs of reality,” adding that China has improved its “law enforcement mechanism.”

To enforce this new law, it has been found that rhino horns are relatively easy to microchip and can have samples taken for DNA analysis. It is this kind of DNA analysis that conservationists argue would be necessary to regulate the illegal trade from the legal farms. Although it’s possible that the horn can be traced back to an individual animal, it is not clear yet how to verify a powdered rhino horn, a product that would be used for medicinal purposes, which may come from more than one animal. After all, the purpose of the law was to preserve the culture of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which requires the usage of tiger and rhino products.

Recently, World Health Organization (WHO) took a stance to support TCM along with other traditional medicine practices as a step towards long term universal health care. Traditional treatments are less costly and more accessible than Western medicine for some countries. This would extend the scope of medicinal practices to include a larger amount of people. According to the director-general of WHO, there is a cost advantage of supporting TCM because treatments are more pioneered towards lifestyle changes, herbal remedies, and reducing stress levels. However, Western scientists are concerned that TCM practices are not supported by clinical trials and therefore could be dangerous. TCM treatments are based on Theories of Qi, which means vital energy to help the body maintain health. Common treatments include acupuncture or herbal remedies. The rhino and tiger are both animals that have connections to virility and strength, providing help to patients with back pain, arthritis, and even hangovers.

Part of the new law states that the purpose behind it was to allow research or usage for traditional medicine. Rhino horns are made from the protein keratin, which is advertised to help treat everything from cancer to gout. However, there is a lack of Western medicinal evidence that proves this. A rare study from 1990 found that rhino horns can lower fevers in rodents, very similar to aspirin or acetaminophen. Tiger bones in medicinal use are crushed and made into a paste that can treat rheumatism and back pain. Yet again, there is a lack of scientific Western studies that support this claim.

Western scientists have spent millions of dollars on trials of TCM with little success. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine surveyed 70 systematic reviews measuring the effectiveness of traditional medicine practices, like acupuncture. The studies couldn’t reach a solid conclusion that supported positive effectiveness. Going along with Western medicine viewpoints, one would argue that the intention behind China’s new policy is not supported with evidence that the rhino horns and tiger bones are an effective form of medicine.  Overall, there are ethical ramifications of this issue that lie beyond the scope of preserving wildlife. The ethical arguments extend to differences between western and traditional medicinal practices and the means to be able to practice both.

Uighur Re-Education and Freedom of Conscience

"Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China" by Joe Hunt licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)..jpg

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In August, UN’s human rights committees received credible information about abuses in the Xinjiang region of China. In this large, supposedly autonomous region in the west of China, there are about 11 million Uighur Muslims who speak a language similar to Turkish. The concerns raised to the UN committee included biometric testing, surveillance, and re-education programs against this significant minority population. Human Rights Watch reported that citizens that had family members living in any of 26 “sensitive” countries were being detained. The surveillance is said to include tracking people using coded entry to buildings and facial recognition technology, and the use of WhatsApp is being tracked. Credible reports to the UN claim that an estimated 1 million Uighurs are in camps undergoing torture and forced to praise the president while renouncing their religion.

Xinjiang, the largest region in China, is being compared to a large internment camp. The BBC reports, “Former prisoners told us of physical as well as psychological torture in the camps. Entire families had disappeared, and we were told detainees were tortured physically and mentally.” In August, China denied actions being taken in the region.

In the second week of October, Beijing legalized re-education camps and programs in order to tackle so-called Uighur extremism through “thought transformation.” The indoctrination includes forced Mandarin teaching and renunciation of the detainees’ Muslim faith in the name of “vocational training.” While China defends the new legalization of interventions in Xinjiang, Sophie Richardson from Human Rights Watch said the “words on paper outlining grotesque, vast human rights abuses don’t deserve the term ‘law.'” (The extremist behavior China cites as justifying this extreme intervention includes not watching state tv, avoiding state-run schools, and producing halal products.)

The extreme surveillance and lack of due process before detaining individuals in the camps is problematic from a human rights perspective, of course. Here I will focus on the conversion efforts and why they are uniquely problematic.

The Chinese government is coercing a group of people away from sincerely held ethical or religious beliefs and thereby violating a right to freedom of conscience. Why might we think this is a human right, or perhaps less stringent, a value that ought to be prima facie respected?

Historically there have been a few different angles to defend the freedom of conscience. Typically, they center on a descriptive fact of human nature: people have a plurality of ethical and religious perspectives.

A defense based on (lack of) effectiveness suggests that when you coerce ethical or religious conversion, at most you will alter external practices while the individual’s internal commitments will remain unchanged. Political coercion, in other words, is not effective in altering ethical and religious outlooks. You are, in effect, creating a group of hypocrites who have a comprehensive moral view that conflicts with their outward behavior.

There have, of course, been faiths that have at particular times doubted this ineffectiveness. The Catholic Church in Europe considered violence at times to open heretic’s eyes to the “truth,” and thus coercion was justified (Augustine argues this case in the fifth century, and others take up this tack centuries later during the Reformation). To justify this conversion, the coercive group has been committed to a notion that they have the truth, or the correct ethical view, to the point that making people believe the truth outweighs respecting their personal convictions.

Another defense of freedom of conscience originates from what could be seen as the opposite temperament – an epistemic humility about one’s own ethical or religious perspective. When we recognize that our commitments are just one set among many different sets of ethical and religious outlooks on the world, one response might be that there isn’t sufficient justification to move someone from what they believe to one’s own perspective. We can see this defense of freedom of conscience again in the Protestant Reformation (for instance, by Pierre Bayle), when some philosophers and religious scholars saw insufficient reason to adopt a Protestant or Catholic framework aside from conviction.

Both of these defenses of the freedom of conscience take it that people adopt different ethical orientations that differ substantively. In the first, the freedom is defended out of practical considerations doubting this purported fact can be altered. In the second, the freedom is defended on the grounds that the presences of a plurality undermines strong enough justification in any particular perspective to coerce conversion. John Rawls, a political philosopher in the 20th century in the US, was committed to what he called a “reasonable pluralism,” which can be seen as a mix of these defenses.

Rawls developed a theory for a just government that would have legitimate authority over its citizens and thereby be structured to promote the primary goods of the people. On Rawls’ view, there are a number of ethical and religious perspectives that one could “reasonably” adopt; people reasoning in good faith will inevitably come to different conclusions about deep, philosophical questions because of their own unique set of experiences and values. While not all determinations will be morally defensible, there will be a range of convictions that might be deemed justifiable epistemically and sufficiently tolerant of others’ views. Given this range of reasonable ethical and religious worldviews, it would be presumptuous and intolerant for a practitioner of one comprehensive moral system (say, Buddhism) to expect a practitioner of another (say, Islam) to conform to his or her own (Buddhism).  So, at the level of government it would be unreasonable to include mandatory commitment to a particular comprehensive ethical or religious perspective (tenets of Buddhism, Islam, atheism, or any system that one would reject if didn’t share the ethical or religious perspective). The members of other ethical systems could reasonably reject such a government, which would undermine its legitimacy.

It is again worth noting that there are substantive commitments underlying the pluralist commitments of Rawls’ view. There have been political philosophies that do not take pluralism to be a necessary tenet of a legitimate government while accepting the descriptive fact that people may adopt many different ethical views.

Mozi, a philosopher from the Warring States Period of Chinese history, was concerned about pluralism. He agreed with the descriptive commitment that where there are many people there are many ethical and religious commitments. However, he saw this is as something to tackle rather than to accept because of the discord that foments as a result. In a “state of nature” argument that justifies the legitimacy of a very different government structure than Rawls’, Mozi argues that an authoritarian government that speaks with one ethical voice and is free of corruption will inspire ethical monism and prosperity among the people. He thus disagrees with the first defense of the freedom of conscience and considers it possible to influence the population’s ethical perspective; roughly, he recommends having those in positions of power reward and honor individuals in line with the ethos of the government and suggests that an ethical monism in the nation will follow.

In political philosophy, the problem of descriptive pluralism is a complicated one as it involves empirical questions regarding what it takes to alter someone’s deepest ethical conviction as well as normative ones concerning which ethical convictions are justified and when influencing the convictions of others is justified. Today, the government crackdown in Xinjiang involves such an intersection of rights abuses that it is clear that many injustices are being committed. In the US, members of Congress has pressed for Trump to intervene in China to discourage their treatment but as of the second week of October, the Trump administration has not responded.

Is Google Obligated to Stay out of China?

Photograph of office building display of Google China

Recently, news broke that Google was once again considering developing a version of its search engine for China. Google has not offered an official version of its website in China since 2010, when it withdrew its services due to concerns about censorship: the Chinese government has placed significant constraints on what its citizens can access online, typically involving information about global and local politics, as well as information that generally does not paint the Chinese government in a positive light. Often referred to as “The Great Firewall of China”, one notorious example of Chinese censorship involves searches for “Tiananmen Square”: if you are outside of China, chances are your searches will prominently include in its results information concerning the 1989 student-led protest and subsequent massacre of civilians by Chinese troops, along with the famous picture of a man standing down a column of tanks; within China, however, search results return information about Tiananmen Square predominantly as a tourist destination, but nothing about the protests.

While the Chinese government has not lifted any of their online restrictions since 2010, Google nevertheless is reportedly considering re-entering the market. The motivation for doing so is obvious: it is an enormous market, and would be extremely profitable for the company to have a presence in China. However, as many have pointed out, doing so would seem to be in violation of Google’s own mantra: “Don’t be evil!” So we should ask: would it be evil for Google to develop a search engine for China that abided by the requirements for censorship dictated by the Chinese government?

One immediate worry is with the existence of the censorship itself. There is no doubt about the fact that the Chinese government is actively restricting its citizens from accessing important information about the world. This kind of censorship is often considered to be a violation of free speech: not only are Chinese citizens restricted from sharing certain kinds of information, they are prevented from acquiring information that would allow them to engage in conversations with others about political and other important matters. That people should not be censored in this way is encapsulated in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human rights:

Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The right to freedom of expression is what philosophers will sometimes refer to as a “negative right”: it’s a right to not be restricted from doing something that you might otherwise be able to do. So while we shouldn’t say that Google is required to provide its users with all possible information out there, we should say that Google should not actively prevent people from acquiring information that they should otherwise have access to. While the UN’s declaration does not have any official legal status, at the very least it is a good guideline for evaluating whether a government is treating its citizens in the right way.

It seems that we should hold the Chinese government responsible for restricting the rights of its citizens. But if Google were to create a version of their site that adhered to the censorship guidelines, should Google itself be held responsible, as well? We might think that they should not: after all, they didn’t create the rules, they are merely following them. What’s more, the censorship would occur with or without Google’s presence, so it does not seem as though they would be violating any more rights by entering the market.

But this doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse. Google would be, at the very least, complicit: they are fully aware of the censorship laws, how they harm citizens, and would be choosing to actively profit as a result of following those rules. Furthermore, it is not as if Google is forced to abide by these rules: they are not, say, a local business that has no other choice but to follow the rules in order to survive. Instead, it would be their choice to return to a market that they once left because of moral concerns. The fact that they would merely be following the rules again this time around does not seem to absolve them of any responsibility.

Perhaps Google could justify its re-entry into China in the following way: the dominant search engine in China is Baidu, which has a whopping 75% of the market share. Google, then, would be able to provide Chinese citizens with an alternative. However, unless Google is actually willing to flout censorship laws, offering an alternative hardly seems to justify their presence in the Chinese market: if Google offers the same travel tips about Tiananmen Square as Baidu does but none of its more important history, then having one more search engine is no improvement.

Finally, perhaps we should think that Google, in fact, really ought to enter the Chinese market, because doing so would fulfil a different set of obligations Google has, namely towards its shareholders and those otherwise invested in the business. Google is a business, after all, and as such should take measures to be as profitable as it reasonably can for those who have a stake in its success. Re-entering the Chinese market would almost certainly be a very profitable endeavour, so we might think that, at least when it comes to those invested in the business, that Google has an obligation to do so. One way to think about Google’s position, then, is that it is forced to make a moral compromise: it has to make a moral sacrifice – in this case, knowingly engaging in censorship practices – in order to fulfil other obligations that it has – those it has towards its shareholders.

Google may very well be faced with a conflict of obligations of this kind, but that does not mean that they should compromise in a way that favors profits: there are, after all, lots of ways to make money, but that does not mean that doing anything and everything for a buck is a justifiable compromise. When weighing the interests of those invested in Google, a company that is by any reasonable definition thriving, against being complicit in aiding in the online censorship of a quarter of a billion people, the balance of moral consideration seems to point clearly in only one direction.

Reckoning with Democracy in Decline

Photograph of several flagpoles, with Chinese and Hong Kong flags visible

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

In the light of the recent decisions coming from People’s Republic of China regarding the elimination of the two-term limit on presidency, it is worth exploring the state of democracy in the world, and more specifically prospects for its survival. Even though China has never significantly approached fulfilling procedural minimum requirements for democracy, this move comes as a significant step away from classical conception of Chinese authoritarianism towards an even more closed political system. Setting China aside as just one among the sea of examples, one ought to focus on the reasons for which democracy or the ideals associated with democracy are globally in decline. Continue reading “Reckoning with Democracy in Decline”

How Should Societies Counteract Overpopulation?

As the human population continues to grow, questions arise concerning how to deal with problems that are human in origin: problems like pollution and environmental degradation, resource depletion, and global food shortages.  The global population, which currently sits at over 7 billion, is expected to reach 10.9 billion by the end of the century.  

As populations increase, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions also increases.  Topsoil depletion that took place between the years 1900 and 2000 was equal to the depletion that took place in the 1000 years that preceded it.  As a result, land that is suitable for agriculture becomes more and more scarce and our ability to produce enough food for climbing populations is threatened.  

Continue reading “How Should Societies Counteract Overpopulation?”

The Ivory Trade: Ban or Regulate?

The United Nations’ Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) will begin on September 24th in Johannesburg, South Africa. The hot topic at the convention will be lifting the ban on the ivory trade that was imposed in 1989. Botswana has been the most recent country to speak out against the ban and to side with fellow African countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania. Botswana carries heavy influence in the decision because  it is home to the world’s largest population of elephants. Along with South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe are some of the larger players in the African ring to support lifting the ban. They are in favor of the economic benefits that come with sales of this natural resource. They will offer a proposal at the conference to lift the ban on the sale of legal ivory. China and Japan also play a large role because of the sheer amount of ivory that finds its way into their borders.

Continue reading “The Ivory Trade: Ban or Regulate?”

Judged by Algorithms

The Chinese government announced in October that they are setting up a “social credit” system, designed to determine trustworthiness. Every citizen will be put into a database which uses fiscal and government information – including online purchases – to determine their trustworthiness ranking. Information in the ranking includes everything from traffic tickets to academic degrees to if women have taken birth control. Citizens currently treat it like a game, comparing their scores to others in attempts to get the highest score out of their social circle. Critics call the move “dystopian,” but this is only the latest algorithm designed to judge people without face to face interaction.

Continue reading “Judged by Algorithms”

McDonalds and Cultural Heritage

A new McDonald’s location has opened up at a controversial location in China: inside a former Taiwanese president’s villa. The home belonged to President Chiang Ching-kuo and his family, but they only lived there for about a month before fleeing to Taiwan. They left very few possessions behind and multiple families rented the house later on. Although the house was declared a cultural heritage site in 2003, part of the home was already converted into a Starbucks a few weeks ago.

Continue reading “McDonalds and Cultural Heritage”