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Culture Q&A

Adrian Zenz

A higher purpose

One Christian researcher’s internet sleuthing exposed the misdeeds of a world superpower

Martial Trezzini/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

When Chinese officials claimed in February 2018 that reeducation camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang did not exist, German researcher Adrian Zenz decided to prove them wrong. He started digging through Chinese government data on the internet—construction bids, hiring ads, local budgets—and found evidence that the government had built massive reeducation camps that held 1 million Uighurs. Zenz, a Christian, views his research as a way to serve the voiceless, including Uighurs who see China eradicating their language and culture. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.

What most surprised you as you sought evidence that China was detaining Uighurs? That there is so much. I found information on government websites, private websites, and Chinese media. I realized the importance of looking at the past years to build up a case, with strong evidence from 2014 to 2016 when reeducation was a small-scale campaign. Then it grew gradually, so you could trace the development of the system and the terminology. The key is figuring out the government’s terminology for reeducation camps. Uighurs say, “We’re going to study,” but a key phrase for the government is “transformation through education.”

What changed after the publication of your research last year? The Chinese government stopped using that key phrase in issuing bids and official reports. The links to several websites that were instrumental to the report, especially construction bids, went dead. Sometimes I was able to find alternative information at another link, sometimes not. The Chinese have become much more careful in what they put out and how they put it out, but at the same time, the amount of available information has only ever tended to increase over time. So now it takes more sifting. You can’t expect to find documents with the old key terms—you need to find new creative ways of finding the same things. There’s a cat-and-mouse game element to this.

How much do you think average Chinese citizens know about what is happening in Xinjiang? They know only the official government line unless they have traveled to Xinjiang. Even if they traveled to Xinjiang, they could get the wrong impression if they go as tourists. They think everything in Xinjiang is safe and beautiful and modern. It’s only when they have firsthand contact with locals that they find out things.

For a long time I thought that research was a fun thing that maybe can get you prestige. But now I realize research can expose entire nations as telling lies.’

How could they learn the truth? Technically they can find out about it from Western media pieces that have been translated into Chinese, but a lot of that is blocked unless you have a virtual private network, which is getting harder to get. Plus a lot of Chinese people think Western claims are exaggerated—the trust in the Western media is not very high. The state was really successful in reducing that in the course of the Tibetan uprising in 2008. When there was any little mistake in Western media reporting, Chinese officials would immediately point it out. That has paid off for them, and it makes spreading the word about Xinjiang really difficult.

Are you blacklisted from entering China? I haven’t tried to go back. It’s possible they would let me in, but since the detentions of the Canadians [Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor], a lot of us academics and experts believe that the Chinese state is transgressing some key boundaries. For my own safety and because I have children, I wouldn’t consider going.

How is the Chinese government changing? In the past, we had the impression that the Chinese government was intense, but still quite rational. And even though they are still rational and calculated, they have lost certain boundaries. We wonder, where is the limit? Perhaps they are so confident in themselves that they think they can do anything to foreigners, which would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. They are capable of doing anything now, and that requires us to take a step back.

How does your Christian faith affect your work? My faith informs what matters to me in life. I have a built-in passion for other cultures and I’ve developed a passion for research. But I don’t believe in doing research for its own sake: I want my life to serve a higher purpose, to serve other people. I don’t just want to live so I can become wealthier and more famous. I want to use the gifting God has given me in His service, and ideally that should benefit other people. 

Do you enjoy doing research like this? For a long time I thought that research was a fun thing that maybe can get you prestige. But now I realize research can expose entire nations as telling lies. It can expose evil. So I discovered a whole different side to research. I feel God is using this gift in me to achieve good things for other human beings. That gives me a lot of purpose.

How did your spiritual beliefs develop? I grew up Catholic, but as I became an adult, I began to lose interest in the ritual of Sunday worship. I had bigger questions in life: What is my life about? Where am I headed? So I left the church, although I generally believed in the existence of God. Later during an encounter with a Korean American pastor in Washington, D.C., I felt the presence of God come upon me very powerfully as he talked to me about where I was headed after death. I was actually shocked to realize that Christianity, which I had been taught my whole life, was actually true. I realized this was the answer to all my questions. Christianity was the foundation of why I exist and why I’m doing what I’m doing. 

What can Christians do to help Uighurs in Xinjiang? It’s important that at least some people in Christian circles stay informed. Not everybody needs to read all the news all the time, but some people should really be informed to keep people posted. One of the concerns I have about the North American church is that many people are very poorly informed. They read very little international news and only know about events in their immediate surroundings.

What would you like U.S. Christians to do when they become better informed? Christians can create more awareness. They can take up an issue like the one in Xinjiang or the house churches in China and hold an event concerning it. They can write a letter to a local politician. They can connect with scholars and activists. I’m not saying every church must do everything. But the church sometimes thinks too little about speaking out about matters of justice and leaves that field to specialist organizations and NGOs.

Do we sometimes pay attention only to things that directly affect us or our purses? Yes, often the Church is very much like the society around it, but for Christians that’s not acceptable. We are called to care for others, to look to the interests of others and not just ourselves, as Philippians 2:3-4 says. There’s no way to do that if you’re not even informed. We have a calling to speak out even at the risk of incurring personal loss. That’s what motivates me to speak out. 

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Daniel Darling

What price dignity?

Steps toward reclaiming an important word and concept

Photo courtesy of Patrick Henry College

Daniel Darling is vice president for communications at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public affairs wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s been a pastor in Chicago and Nashville and is the author of The Dignity Revolution. Here are edited segments of our Q&A.

Former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy used the word dignity nine times in his decision that overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. How do you use the word, and how are you perhaps trying to reclaim it? Human dignity is not self-determined. We have dignity as human beings because a Creator made us in His own image. We don’t find our meaning and purpose within, but without, from God—and the One who created us knows what’s best for us.

Say you’re discussing same-sex marriage with a “woke” LGBTQ person who says, “We must be on the same side, because you’ve written The Dignity Revolution.” Where would you go in that conversation? I would say to people who are LGBTQ that your dignity is not defined by the way people think of you nor how they affirm you. Your dignity is given to you by your Creator, whether you acknowledge that or not. I would say, secondly, we are not defined by our sexual desires and activities. Lots of non-Christians are questioning the ethic of doing anything you want with whoever you want as long as there’s consent. To those who buy that I’d ask, “How’s that working out for you?”

A lot of LGBTQ folks would say, I’m doing fine. How’s that working out on a larger societal scale? As Christians, we’re always countercultural. We’re always pointing the world to a better story, a bigger plan, something much higher and much grander than what we can design for ourselves. But I wouldn’t get into a long, protracted argument. We should show by the way we treat people that we’re willing to live in a civil society among people who disagree with us.

‘Your dignity is not defined by the way people think of you nor how they affirm you. Your dignity is given to you by your Creator, whether you acknowledge that or not.’

And what do we say? What we should have always been saying: “I hear where you’re coming from, but let me just tell you what the Bible says about the world—that it was created good and something happened that has corrupted the world.” Even people who are not believers get that. They know the world is somehow messed up. We all know there are dark parts of our hearts that we wouldn’t want to be public. 

We are all sinners. Everyone acknowledges that the world is messed up. Part of the answer to the sexual revolution, whether it’s LGBTQ or other deviations from the Biblical idea, is to say that what God has for us is always better than we can envision for ourselves.

If we are here merely because of random mutations and survival of the fittest, how do we have dignity? When we explain that it’s not just random, but there’s a God who created you in His image, and He wants to reconcile with you through Christ—that’s a powerful message. And it is as relevant today as it ever has been. Darwinism is dangerous, because as we saw in 1930s and 1940s Germany, as we saw in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when we see people as weak in a struggle for survival we can justify doing anything against them. 

In The Dignity Revolution you say a gospel proclamation divorced from acts of mercy becomes an impoverished witness. Could you unpack that? Christians sometimes feel pressure to choose between salvation and social action, acts of mercy. Jesus does not let us make that choice. In Mark 6 the message is “Repent!”—but Jesus also says He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: When the Messiah comes, that’s good news for the poor. Whenever the church both proclaims the gospel of individual salvation and lives that out by works of mercy, we’re showing the world a glimpse of what the kingdom will look like in full when Jesus returns.

Have you seen examples of that? A lot of the people you profile in your Hope Awards. Look around the world and think of all the most difficult areas in the world: war, famine, natural disaster. Inevitably you will find Christians there, serving people. Not because they’re making a name for themselves, not because they found a hashtag that they like, but because the gospel compels them to be there.

You have a chapter about racial reconciliation and the importance of conversations. I’ve seen reconciliation on sports teams, where if one person succeeds, the whole team succeeds. Athletes don’t sit around the locker room talking about race: They work together for a common objective. Yes, people serving together side by side, having that cohesion. I do think it’s incumbent, particularly for people in the white majority, to have some humility and listen to our minority brothers and sisters talk about their plight and what they have gone through, experiences that we have not had to go through.

How does “dignity” affect our national debate about abortion, which is much more prevalent per capita in African American communities? Justice Anthony Kennedy kept Roe v. Wade alive, even though he emphasized “dignity” and wrote in 2000, “The fetus in many cases dies just as a human adult or child would. It bleeds to death as it is torn from limb to limb.” The pro-choice movement, the abortion industry, has moved from saying, “This is a hard and tragic choice that nevertheless needs to be available and legal,” to almost celebrating death in a really grotesque way. This is a natural progression when you, for so long, have catechized yourself into believing that the person is not human, or when you’ve justified what you’re doing. But pro-life people have introduced into the culture this moral vocabulary that the most vulnerable among us are human beings with dignity and worth. 

But since that understanding is not general, in what way do we have a dignity revolution? I talk about a quiet revolution of ordinary people seeing what our eyes don’t want us to see, seeing the humanity of people we are tempted to walk past on our roads to Jericho. One reason you see this hardening of abortion positions is that we just don’t want to see what is there. 

The word dignity has also been used a lot regarding euthanasia, euphemistically called “death with dignity.” How should we fight the idea that killing old people is a way to accord them dignity? The “death with dignity” movement preys on the vulnerable. We need to show the world that elderly populations have dignity by the way that we treat them. For instance, do we have churches that are only marketed to the young and the hip? Do we treat well our own elderly relatives?

NOTE: Daniel Darling mentioned WORLD’s Hope Awards. One of the five ministries we profiled in our last issue will receive the $10,000 first-place award, plus publicity that brings in more volunteers and donations. If you have not already done so, please go to wng.org/compassion and vote for whichever ministry moves you the most. WORLD reporters have researched and eyeballed all five, so they all help needy people and glorify God. 

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Simon Tam

Seeing eye to eye

Why an Asian American band took its controversial trademark battle to the Supreme Court—and how its frontman saw humanity in others

The Slants

In 2013 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office denied an Oregon punk rock band’s request to trademark its name, “The Slants,” on grounds it disparaged Asian Americans. The band, led by California native Simon Tam, appealed: He says its goal was to reclaim the term from racial slurs and “inject it with pride.” In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the trademark denial violated the First Amendment and granted the band’s request. Since then, Tam has written a memoir and started a foundation to help Asian American artists.

How did you decide on the name for the band? I started having conversations with people around me. I asked them, “What’s something you think all Asian people have in common?” Over and over, the answer was the same: slanted eyes, which I always thought was interesting because it’s not true. Not all Asian people have slanted eyes, and we’re not the only people on earth to have slanted eyes. But also, we could sing about our perspective, our “slant” on life—what it’s like to be people of color. As a kid I was ridiculed for having slanted eyes, and I thought, “How cool would it be to reappropriate that, to inject it with pride and empowerment instead of shame?” 

‘I realized that you don’t win by shutting other people down, by censoring them. You win by having a discussion, by being able to articulate and engage.’

What in your life prepared you for going to the Supreme Court? A lot of my life experience has taught me to try and avoid these kinds of up-front assumptions that we make based on stereotypes of race, religion, and political identity. It’s just so easy to force people into these convenient categories. Growing up, I was the last person to be called on in English class, even though I had the best grade in the class. I was the first person to be called on in math, even though my math grades were terrible! I was beat up many times, violently attacked for looking the way I do, for having an Asian face.

Were you angry? I saw this as an opportunity to extend compassion to other people. I truly believe that behind hate, behind ignorance, there’s probably a story of pain. There’s a reason why people are hurting and why they choose to lash out at others in that particular way. I found rather than just trying to fight back violently, if you find a way to tap into someone’s humanity, we can generally move forward.

Easy or hard to arrive at that conclusion? It took me a very long time, and I had to go through a lot of different experiences to find this out. But that’s also when I realized—this probably ultimately informed my attorney at the Supreme Court—that you don’t win by shutting other people down, by censoring them. You win by having a discussion, by being able to articulate and engage. Those experiences, whether they were bullying or watching how my parents were treated by other people who could be very ignorant, helped me realize the only way to build that community we want is to treat it like a community. That means working with others and not just trying to push them away.

Any one turning point for you in this? One particular moment was when we were invited to play at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Sending an Asian American band into prison with one of the highest populations of neo-Nazis in the country—most people would think this is a terrible idea, but I just had Johnny Cash on my mind: “Folsom Prison Blues”! This could be our moment! At the end of this concert—we performed for about 2,000 inmates—someone covered head to toe in swastikas approached me. He had very large words tattooed across his chest: “White Power.” Of course I froze. The man just said a couple of words to me that broke right through me: He asked me for an autograph, gives me this piece of paper, and says, “It’s for my daughter.” 

Why did that strike you? It was then that I could see that humanity within him. And once we actually had a chance to have a conversation and talk about each of our life experiences, we both left changed that day. That was probably the most powerful experience I’ve ever had as a musician. And I realize that’s something that can’t be created through legislation. It can’t be forced. It was just taking a moment to see eye to eye as people. When I saw that this person literally covered head to toe in white supremacist tattoos took the time to talk to me, I realized anything would be possible. It’s so easy to get caught up in pessimism and assumptions, but when we actually take the time to have questions rooted in our values, I think we can truly make a difference. 

When the Patent and Trademark Office denied your trademark registration, how did you know what to do next? I didn’t know what to do next. I’ve relied heavily on my attorney, but the law that the trademark office uses is so obscure that most people don’t really know what to do. We had to all of a sudden prove that we weren’t offensive to ourselves. How do you go about doing something like that? We looked at other cases as that model. We got experts, like community leaders. At one point we got dictionary experts and surveys and all kinds of folks to weigh in on this—hundreds of pages of evidence showing that we weren’t offensive to ourselves. That didn’t work. It wasn’t until a couple of years before our case was resolved that this junior attorney throws in a First Amendment argument to see where it goes. And the courts picked up on that right away. So using our civil liberties got us through. 

What’s your feeling about the American legal system? Mixed. On one hand I see the opportunities to make change to make a difference. That is really powerful. Some college dropout, punk rock kid like me was able to make a difference at the Supreme Court. That’s astounding to me. At the same time, I spent eight years of my life in one court or another, and I didn’t even commit a crime. I wish justice could move a little more swiftly. But I understand there’s a tradition and there is a process. I just hope the process can be refined and improved for people like me.


Excerpt: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in Matal v. Tam

“It is claimed ... the Government has an interest in preventing speech expressing ideas that offend. And, as we have explained, that idea strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

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