Catholic University of America’s Chinese Divestment Drive May Have Global Impact

Since 2017, the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs and other Turkic groups by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) have gained considerable international attention. There have been many political, financial, and legal responses to the PRC’s repression from governments, companies, religious leaders, and human rights groups. These include, sanctions, heated diplomatic exchanges, human rights reports, and boycotts. However, in October of 2021, a new course of action was undertaken when Catholic University of America’s (CUA) Student Government passed a resolution that condemned the PRC’s repressive measures in Xinjiang as a genocide, and called for the University to divest “any and all of its financial holdings connected to Xinjiang atrocities.” A month later, CUA announced that there would be an investigation into its “endowment holdings for anything related to mass internment, forced labor, mass surveillance or other crimes committed against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China.” At the time of this writing, the investigation has not been completed, but in June of this year, a CUA official said that “the search has [thus far] not identified a company in which the University invests that is known to be involved in or benefit from Uyghur exploitation.” 

While CUA’s position has garnered some headlines (mainly in the US), it impacts international affairs in four distinct ways. First, it strengthens the growing global Christian opposition towards the PRC’s atrocities in Xinjiang. In the past, opposition came in the form statements by denominations, church leaders, and university professors decrying the PRC’s imprisonment of over one million Uyghurs, the family separations, and the forced labor. CUA uses this rhetoric, but also builds on it by shifting the conversation from condemnation to divestment. Secondly, other colleges are taking notice. In January of 2022, Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility stated that it would conduct an investigation into its ties with Chinese companies that might be connected to the repression in Xinjiang, and students at Cornell, UCLA, University of Virginia, and George Washington University have called for their institutions to do the same. Although the response by students and university administrations at the moment of writing, has been small, Josh Rogin of the Washington Post pointed out that it has the potential to grow in the coming years on a scale similar to the divestment movement of the 1970s and 1980s that targeted South Africa over its apartheid system and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.  

The third way it impacts international affairs is that it further strains US-China relations. College campuses have been a focal point of tension between the two countries, most notably seen with the controversies surrounding Confucius Institutions and the now-defunct China Initiative. CUA’s divestment movement expands this battleground by providing American colleges with a way to remove any financial ties they may have to the exploitation of the Uyghurs. Congress appears to have taken note of this. Currently, Congressman Rep. Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) is pushing for the passage of the Protecting Endowments from Our Adversaries Act which is aimed at cutting “US university endowment investments that fund abusive or hostile Chinese entities,” including entities connected to the atrocities in Xinjiang. Although it is unclear whether this bill will get passed, Congress is not likely to ignore CUA’s divestment campaign in the short term. More legislation aimed at removing US university endowment investments that are connected to Xinjiang is likely to follow in the coming years. Should this happen, the PRC could retaliate by withdrawing more of its endowments and academic programs from US colleges, increasing tensions between the two countries. While it is unclear how far the US and PRC will go on endowment matters, the divestment drive looks to further complicate US-China relations.  

The fourth way CUA’s divestment position has a global impact is by providing more opportunities for interfaith advocacy between Christians and Muslims. While there have been joint statements made by Christian and Muslim leaders in recent years, these mainly come from leaders in the US and Europe. However, there are Muslims and Christians outside of North America and Europe who have condemned what the PRC is doing to the Uyghurs, and CUA has an opportunity to give their voices greater influence in international affairs. These could include joint statements of solidarity for the Uyghurs, hosting Christian-Muslim conferences to raise awareness, joint protests, and new academic exchange programs between these faith communities. 

For now, the impact of CUA’s divestment initiative is small, as only a few schools have taken a similar interest on the matter. Furthermore, much of the opposition by Christians towards the PRC’s repression resides in the US and Europe, legislative responses (at the time of this writing) are still in the works and may not get passed, and Christian-Muslim interfaith advocacy for the Uyghurs and other Turkic groups mainly comes from Western nations. Nevertheless, CUA’s decision has ushered in a new area of activism that is likely to grow in the coming years. While it is unclear how extensive the financial, legal, and political ramifications will be, colleges, politicians, and religious communities are taking notice of the new divestment movement. This will make it harder for them to feign ignorance about the PRC’s atrocities towards the Uyghurs which a growing number of scholars, human rights activists, and governments are calling crimes against humanity, cultural genocide, and/or genocide