By Vijay Prashad, CounterPunch, Feb. 7, 2022
I became a journalist because of a photograph by Bill Foley (AP) on the front page of an Indian newspaper in 1982. It was taken in Sabra and Shatila (Beirut, Lebanon) a few days after the mass slaughter of Palestinians engineered by the Israeli army and a Lebanese Christian militia. The photograph showed two grieving women bent over dead bodies. That image captivated me; what exasperated me was the lack of explanation of their grief. Years later, I walked those streets in Beirut with Robert Fisk (1946-2020), who had been present in the early days after the massacre. We searched for those two women and others who could tell the story of the violence. It was a day that I will never forget. I became a journalist, in a way, to make sure that fifteen-year-olds in places such as Calcutta (India) would find out both about the world’s suffering and about the world’s struggles for decency and dignity.
Since then, I have written thousands of articles and thirty books, largely concerned with the open wounds of our planetary grief. This year, Noam Chomsky and I will release The Withdrawal: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and the Fragilities of US Power (New Press), which will bring together his considerable thinking on the ugliness of our times and my reporting from some of these places. In the book, Chomsky and I talk about the Godfather attitude of the United States government: either you are with us or against us, and if you are against us, then we will use every ounce of our force to demolish you. One of the ways in which this Godfather attitude appears is in the information war that the United States (and its corporate allies) conducts against anyone who objects to its self-anointed right to power and to its myopic vision of the world. Noam’s book with Edward Herman Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda (1975) was pulped by Warner when its chief executive felt that it was “a scurrilous attack on respected Americans.” You tell the truth about the violence of the United States government, and you will get it in the neck from its loyal defenders.
In recent weeks, articles have dribbled out from respected and not so respected publications that have made serious allegations against me and others with whom I work closely. The articles, and the allegations, are scurrilous. One of the articles (in The Nation) pretends to quote from an interview I gave to its author David Klion (who once called Russiagate the “crime of the century,” having apparently forgotten about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003). The other article (in a magazine I did not previously know) tried to conjure a conspiracy from something that is no secret at all, pretend to have a scoop based on public statements that I – and others – have made. The authors – Alexander Reid Ross and Courtney Dobson – uncovered no conspiracy and had no scoop, only innuendo.
In their article, Ross and Dobson make a great deal about the fact that the institution I direct – Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research – has been funded principally by Roy Singham. Well, so what? Roy is my friend, and his father Archie was a mentor. After his early political formation in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Roy built and then sold the tech giant ThoughtWorks. That Roy believes that the money he earned from ThoughtWorks rightly belongs to the oppressed of the planet and donates to non-profit organizations committed to social justice is a source of great pride to me, not of shame.
Ross and Dobson imply that Roy’s support is hush-hush, writing that I “did not comment on Singham’s alleged financial involvement in his organization.” But this is disingenuous. Before their article was even published, I had publicly shared that Roy’s funds “were the original source for Tricontinental’s endowment” and Roy’s generosity to progressive causes has never been a secret. What exactly is the scandal? Is there something untoward about friends supporting each other? Is there something nefarious about people who share ethical and political commitments working together? Jodie Evans (CODEPINK), Manolo De Los Santos (The People’s Forum), and others named in the article are friends and comrades with whom I have a public relationship. To turn publicly available information into a poorly drawn organizational chart and then imply it is a secret conspiracy reminds me of when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought his crayon and drawing to the United Nations as part of Israel’s information war against Iran.
Meanwhile, Klion plays fast and loose, speculating and making insinuations about my thoughts rather than elucidating what I told him. “This is more or less” what I said, Klion claims, rather than share my actual words. “In [Prashad’s] telling,” he writes, “what is happening to the Uyghurs [in China] is analogous to what countries like the United States and Australia did to their Indigenous populations, or what the British Empire did in his native India – but somewhat to my surprise [Prashad] didn’t mean that in a bad way.” This may have been what Klion wanted me to say or believe, the only problem is that this is not at all what I believe or say. I have always been opposed to any form of colonialism and genocide (including, at the invitation of the editors, in The Nation itself as recently as 28 April 2021 and as early as 4 June 2007).
However, I do not believe that cultures are fixed and unchanging, nor do I believe that they should be treated as inherently sacrosanct or beyond question within a society. That The Nation is surprised by my views, surprises me. I stand against patriarchy, the wretchedness of caste, the hideousness of racism; these are all part of our cultural inheritance, and it is our right and duty to fight against them with all the resources at our disposal. I believe that any people’s project has the right to tackle these intolerances. That The Nation took this view to imply – libelously – that I support genocide is shocking, deeply shocking.
These two articles are based on astonishingly poor journalistic standards. They contain numerous demonstrably false statements. Some are petty, but important in so far as they reveal the lack of journalistic seriousness and attention to detail (the year of my joining Chongyang, for instance). Others are rather amusing, but important in so far as they clearly place Ross and Dobson within the logic of the new McCarthyism (e.g. Roy is said to be of “mixed Sri Lankan and Cuban heritage” – a point lifted from a near fascist Indian website; he, in fact, has no “Cuban heritage”).
There is no original reporting here, only dangerous insinuations. What are these insinuations?
First, and quite explicitly, these articles say that I am a denier of genocide in China. Ross and Dobson say that my “own corpus has lately tended towards defending the Chinese government,” and then lists what they claim that I am defending: “the mass internment, reeducation, forced labor and sterilization campaigns waged in the northwest province Xinjiang against ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim populations.”
In fact, I have never written about any of these matters, and have never said that they happened or did not happen. I did tell RJ Eskow on his show in April 2021 that I did not believe there was reliable evidence or investigation to meet the high legal burden of genocide under international law (a precise standard set by the United Nations General Assembly in 1951). This argument has been made in more detail by Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and former UN advisor, and William Schabas, the legal scholar and former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Even the US State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser recently concluded that there is “insufficient evidence” for the genocide claim.
International law on genocide has been carefully and precisely crafted for seventy years. Human rights scholars and lawyers frequently engage in nuanced debate about the appropriate scope of the term which can have severe political and legal implications worldwide, and they caution, as Kate Cronin-Furman (Director of Human Rights, University College London) does, that there are serious risks to loosely using these designations. To express hesitation that events rise to the UN standard of genocide is not the same as defending a government or claiming that events are not taking place. To reduce the delicate nuance of these important conversations to misrepresentations and dangerous accusations cheapens the very foundations and complexities of human rights law.
This lack of precision has marked Ross throughout his career (I could not find any other article by Dobson). Ross has had publications withdrawn due to his lax adherence to facts and journalistic ethics. In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) retracted one of Ross’s “investigations” in which he characterized US activists and journalists who opposed US foreign policy towards Syria as fascists under the influence of Russian government. The SPLC went so far as to issue a formal apology to those targeted by Ross.
Ross had taken a class with me when I taught at Trinity College (he graduated in 2006 and asked me to write a recommendation for his graduate school a decade later, which I did). He has read a number of my books and articles, which he has praised on his Facebook page and reviewed on several occasions (Arab Spring, Libyan Winter in 2012 for Befrois and Poorer Nations in 2013 for the Singapore Review of Books). He is aware of the range of my work and my commitments. None of this is mentioned in his co-written article.
Second, these articles claim that I am engaged in genocide denial because Roy is allegedly operating on behalf of or trying to curry favor with the Chinese government. Since this is utter nonsense, the authors provide no evidence to back up their allegations, only innuendo. The article points to ThoughtWorks’ consultancy with Huawei and companies Roy set up in Shanghai as part of his post-ThoughtWorks business. (Even here, the errors abound: they say that ThoughtWorks started its China work in 2001, when they did not start their work there until 2005; they say that the collaboration ended in 2008, when in fact the two firms have continued to collaborate). Ross and Dobson quote Martin Fowler saying that Roy sold ThoughtWorks to “accelerate” his activism. Indeed, Roy has used his wealth to support the causes that are close to his heart. The purpose of the initial endowment to Tricontinental was to allow the institute to grow and flourish.
Ross and Dobson allege that somehow my association with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies (Beijing) is another way that the Chinese government supposedly controls me. I did not join Chongyang as an unpaid and senior nonresident fellow until 2020, not 2017 as the article mistakenly says, and I joined to be able to hold discussions with Chinese intellectuals about their understanding of world affairs. If engaging a range of Chinese intellectuals, as I do intellectuals across the planet, is presumed to be a dubious activity then the new McCarthyism is in full bloom.
Ross and Dobson suggest that I changed my opinions about China after 2017, since in The Poorer Nations (2013) I had been critical of the Chinese developmental model. Firstly, The Poorer Nations was drafted and published before President Xi Jinping attempted to abolish absolute poverty as well as to address the problem of social inequality, the excesses of the rich and the power of the big tech companies over society. These are new developments, and developments that must be taken seriously. Taking them seriously hardly implies an inability to be critical about the Chinese state and society (and to acknowledge, as Professor Cheng Enfu does, that there are a range of political opinions amongst the 95 million members of the Communist Party of China and amongst state officials). Secondly, in December 2018, I went to Beijing and wrote about the 40th anniversary of the market reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping for Newsclick as well as about the “developments in Xinjiang” and the arrest of Marxist students in a Tricontinental newsletter (the 43rd newsletter of the institute, which means it was written well after the institute had been established). The letter includes the following lines: “Problems remain, however, some of them very grave: the developments in Xinjiang – with the detention of unknown numbers of China’s Uyghur minority – and the arrests of Marxist students who had gone to offer solidarity to the workers of Jasic Technology in Shenzhen. It is difficult to imagine the promotion of Marxism at the same time as the violation of basic Marxist principles, such as the rights of minorities and the rights of worker organisation.” At that time, I was asked on Facebook about what I thought about the Xinjiang situation. This is what I wrote: “The Uyghur situation, like so much else, is exaggerated in the Western press. I spoke with many intellectuals who are otherwise critical of the Chinese state in many ways – including two Uyghur scholars – and they say that there is more to this story than meets the eye. I don’t want to speculate because I have not been to Ürümqi. I am also not predisposed to believe the dross that appears in a Western press, which is otherwise so silent about Manus Island and the other concentration camps of minorities who wish to enter the advanced states. This needs to be looked into.”
There is no genocide denial here. There are, however, questions raised, which I raised again for Globetrotter (April 2021) on the way the West is misusing whatever is happening in Xinjiang in a drive toward a dangerous military adventure against China. To say that the West is misusing an issue as part of its new Cold War is hardly to say that there is no issue.
It is also important to note that the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research has now published 49 monthly dossiers and many studies. Only one study is specifically focused on China. It examines the eradication of absolute poverty in China, something that is critically important to understand and engage with, particularly for the majority of the planet where impoverishment gnaws at people’s lives and hopes day after day, generation after generation (this accomplishment was saluted by the United Nations Secretary General in October 2021). We have, as a point of comparison, published four dossiers on South Africa. It is simply ludicrous to suggest that the Institute is somehow a front for a pro-China agenda.
Even the most cursory look at the projects across the Global South that have received money from organizations supported by Roy will show that many of them do not engage issues pertaining to the Chinese state at all, or, if they do, only do so as a matter on the outer periphery of their fundamental concerns which are often focused on the popular organizations and struggles in their countries and regions.
You want deniers of terrible violence? Go talk to US government officials about the horrendous violence unleashed by their political and military forces against the peoples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, you name it. Millions killed, thousands thrown into black sites and terrible prisons, as well as Guantanamo, thousands tortured and brutalized, the dreams of entire nations shattered. The US government actively and successfully derailed any attempt by the International Criminal Court to investigate its crimes in Afghanistan.
Instead of holding the US government to account, Ross and Dobson unquestioningly accept its claims. In their article, they do not offer concrete evidence for a genocide that the situation in Xinjiang meets the UN definition of the term. Instead, they hurry for cover behind the “Biden administration [which] recently labeled this ongoing gross human rights abuse a genocide.” It is remarkable that these people – including a former anarchist to boot – would take the words of the US government as fact, given that this same government has repeatedly lied to enter and accelerate wars in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq and elsewhere. Even worse, Ross and Dobson take the “US intelligence community” as the standard to define what Huawei is. At the end of the day Ross and Dobson accept – without question – the words of the White House and the CIA.
These are the same institutions – the White House and the CIA – that need to be scrutinized for the horrific scale of their violence against a range of countries. The greatest crime of the century, says Klion, is Russiagate, and not the US wars on Iraq and Afghanistan nor the destruction of Yemen by US allies and Western arms companies.
This is CIA journalism. They would rely upon Ariel Sharon to learn about what happened in Sabra and Shatila.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).
Posted Feb. 25, 2022