When a number of major U.S. corporations issued statements last week in opposition to Georgia’s new law restricting voting rights, it generated some ironic responses from Republican lawmakers who are normally staunch defenders of corporate political contributions, and who now find themselves calling on big companies to stay out of politics.
One of the odder, and frankly more exhausting, responses came from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who put out an open letter to Delta CEO Ed Bastian, and an accompanying video, in response to Bastian’s condemnation of the Georgia law. Rather than rebut any of Bastian’s arguments about Georgia, Rubio tried instead to invalidate them by pointing out that Delta has not been so forthright when it comes to speaking out about human rights abuses in China.
“I write to encourage you to use your platform as the CEO of the world’s largest airline to unequivocally condemn the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing genocide of Uyghurs Muslims in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in the People’s Republic of China,” Rubio wrote, pointing out that Delta recently purchased a stake in China Eastern Airlines, which is partly owned by the Chinese government.
Fox News picked up on the attack as well. Long before the Georgia dispute, raising the Xinjiang issue had become a standard part of the Republican playbook. Since 2019’s Daryl Morey Hong Kong tweet imbroglio, Republican politicians like Rubio and Josh Hawley have similarly criticized the NBA and its players for speaking out on social justice issues in the U.S. but not China, where the league does a significant amount of business.
There is nothing wrong with calling on global corporations to be more discriminating about the governments they partner with, or at least not actively complicit in human rights abuses. Doing so has long been a cornerstone of global human rights activism. If Bastian or LeBron James or anyone else with a public platform and economic interests in China were willing to put those interests in jeopardy by speaking out on behalf of the Uyghurs or Hong Kong, that would be a welcome development.
But Rubio’s assertion is that a failure to speak out on China should invalidate stances taken on American issues—that it is “the very definition of woke corporate hypocrisy,” as he puts it, to oppose racist voting laws in the U.S. without also condemning the mass detention of Muslims in northwest China.
As participants in a global economy in a world rife with cruelty and exploitation, none of us has entirely clean hands—multinational airlines certainly don’t. Instead, they pick their causes. In Delta’s case, as a major employer in the state of Georgia, it has more leverage over the state’s politics, and its employees are more likely to be directly affected by the Georgia law. And, as is the case with most companies that take a stand on social issues, it is responding to market incentives, believing that such a stand will appeal to potential customers or employees.
If you believe Delta’s business interests in China make it complicit in human rights abuses there, the response would be to work to create incentives to change its behavior on that issue, not attack its actions on another issue. But Rubio is not—or at least not primarily—trying to start a conversation about China here; he’s trying to shut down a conversation about Georgia and what he dismisses as “the woke issues of the day in the United States.”
As the political philosopher Judith Shklar wrote, hypocrisy is a “universally available insult” that becomes the dominant mode of political debate when political actors have given up even trying to convince their opponents. It is, she noted, “easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show that his political convictions are wrong.”
There’s a telling symmetry here between the approach of American Republicans and that of Chinese Communists. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats and state-owned media outlets also like to argue that racism, inequality, and violence in the United States invalidate American criticism of human rights abuses in China. As the nationalist Global Times tabloid put it in its coverage of a Chinese report on the George Floyd protests, “the horrible human rights conditions of African Americans and other minorities have uncovered the hypocrisy of US politicians, which makes the US less qualified to comment on other countries’ human rights issues.”
This is an update of what in the Cold War was known as “whataboutism”: Soviet officials bringing up segregation and lynching in response to American criticism of show trials or gulags. The difference is that while China is trying to keep foreigners from commenting on its internal behavior—blacklisting international brands like H&M for taking a stand on forced labor in Xinjiang, to take one recent example— Rubio is trying to shame Americans out of taking a stand on American issues.
The current what-about-China-ism will also undermine America’s position on human rights abroad. The best response to China’s charges of hypocrisy is not to deny that any injustices happen in the U.S., or even get into a likely fruitless argument about which country’s abuses are worse. It’s to point out that when injustices do happen, they can be opposed, discussed, and hopefully redressed and prevented from reoccurring—something that happens much less often in a single-party state with a heavily censored media. It’s hard to imagine a major Chinese company making a statement like Delta’s, for instance.
The abuses taking place in China are genuinely outrageous. It’s a shame Rubio seems intent on squandering the main moral advantage the U.S. has in speaking out on those abuses.