Earlier this week OSHWA announced that it would not be holding the 2019 Open Hardware Summit in Shenzhen, China. The stated reason for canceling the Summit is that China’s new foreign NGO law created logistical and bureaucratic barriers to holding the Summit in China. This reason is absolutely true – OSHWA was not going to be able to overcome the barriers created by the law.

However, there is also a second reason that I am wary of holding an event in China: China is currently holding one million ethnic Uyghurs in concentration camps, primarily because they are ethnically and religiously different from the Han Chinese majority. While OSHWA did not discuss the Uyghur situation in the Summit announcement, I believe that it is important to flesh out this concern for the community. I also believe that the open community should also consider this situation when it thinks about bringing major events to China.

The Situation

Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority who primarily live in western China. China has currently placed perhaps one million Uyghurs in what are commonly described as detention camps, re-education camps, or gulags. Uyghurs are in these camps because of their racial and religious identity. For Uyghurs not placed in camps, the Chinese government has ordered another one million Chinese citizens, known as “big brothers and sisters,” to live in the homes of Uyghurs and report their activity back to the government. Uyghurs are also being forced to shave their beards, eat pork, drink alcohol, and generally partake in activities that violate their religious beliefs for the purpose of distancing them from those beliefs.

Speaking out about these camps - even for people outside of China - can be dangerous. China has routinely placed the relatives of Uyghurs outside of China in camps as punishment for speaking out. This makes drawing attention to and discussing this practice highly fraught in general, and and all but precludes responsible discussion of them within China.

Even if one were inclined to draw a moral equivalence between China’s treatment of Uyghurs and any number of activities undertaken by the U.S. government today, the combination of massive human rights abuses and punishment for activists who dare to raise concerns about the abuses has no equivalent in the United States or any other western country that I am aware of. That makes the situation worthy of discussion within the open community.

OSHWA and Uyghurs

The Uyghur situation presented a potential problem for holding the Summit in China this year: should OSHWA hold its major event in a country engaged in this kind of activity? While an easy question to ask, I will not pretend that this is necessarily a question with a straightforward answer.

OSHWA is an organization organized around a community of open source hardware. Human rights issues are not obviously part of that primary mission. At the same time, the open community strives to be inclusive. OSHWA is rightly proud of the Summit’s code of conduct and the Ada fellowship. While these things are not directly related to making open source hardware in a narrow sense, we recognize as a community that it is important to fostering an inclusive and vibrant open source hardware ecosystem.

In light of that, how should OSHWA evaluate human rights abuses in potential Summit host countries? Is it OSHWA’s place to speak out on human rights issues? If so, how should it do so and what kind of legitimacy does it speak with? To the extent that OSHWA has a community mandate to speak about open hardware issues, does that mandate extend to human rights issues?

Furthermore, OSHWA has many community members in China. What does it mean for their safety if OSHWA begins speaking out against human rights abuses there? If OSHWA comes out against what is going on with Uyghurs, should agreeing with OSHWA’s stance on that issue be a prerequisite for supporting open source hardware? What would that mean for OSHWA supporters in China who support the government’s activities? If OSHWA was to get involved with this situation, how would it handle other non-open hardware-related situations in the world? If OSHWA is worried about the situation, is it better to go to China and engage with people about it or simply walk away?

These are mostly answerable questions, but they are questions where reasonable people could disagree. In light of that complexity, OSHWA decided to take a path of constitutional avoidance with regard to the Summit. Because OSHWA could decide not to hold the Summit on relatively non-controversial procedural grounds – the foreign NGO law effectively made it impossible to hold the Summit in China this year – OSHWA decided not to wade into the Uyghur situation as well.

What are the Ramifications?

I think this was the responsible decision by OSHWA. That does not mean that the community - as opposed to OSHWA as an organization - should necessarily ignore the Uyghur situation. In fact, I believe that the open source hardware community has a responsibility to understand what is happening in a country that is so important to it.

I certainly would not have been comfortable participating in a Summit held in China with one million people in concentration camps. That discomfort would have been compounded by the fact that even pausing for a moment to recognize the existence of the camps at a China-based Summit would have exposed the organizers - Chinese and non-Chinese alike - to potential punishment from the Chinese government. That would make it irresponsible to do so.

I also am not suggesting that a relationship with China is binary. I continue to use products made in China and engage with Chinese companies. It should go without saying that raising this issue is not an attack on the Chinese people, and that I enjoy and hope to continue to grow my relationship with many members of the Chinese open source hardware community. In fact, I hope that there are open hardware events in China as part of Open Hardware Month in October.

Nonetheless, holding the Summit would have been a special type of engagement. OSHWA chooses the city for the Summit in order to highlight the importance of that city for the community. Special types of engagement should bring with them special types of responsibilities and reflections.

OSHWA does not have to directly grapple with how the Uyghur situation interacts with the Summit this year. However, there are many other organizations in the open source hardware community (and the larger maker community) that are considering holding events in China this year. Assuming they can find a way to navigate the NGO law (or that the NGO law does not apply to them), I hope that they will at least pause to consider what their event might mean in a country with a million people in concentration camps.

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