A Mere Seven Words: China’s Power Play on Freedom of Speech

Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 19

A mere seven-word tweet posted in mid-October sparked a massive shock and long lasting ripples in sports news, and later, the world. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” tweeted out by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, in support of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, resulted in an outburst from the Chinese government, which proceeded to cancel television and internet streaming of the NBA exhibition games being played there. When the NBA released a statement timidly defending Morey’s right to free speech under the First Amendment, China’s CCTV Network responded, “any remarks that challenge [China’s] national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.” All eleven of the NBA’s official Chinese partners — from a travel company to a fast food chain — have suspended ties with the league. There is clearly a lot at stake for the NBA. The Chinese market makes up at least 10 percent of the league’s current revenue, and may reach 20 percent by 2030. What does China’s economic hegemony mean for freedom of speech on the international stage? On the horizon, it seems like there will be an eventual erosion of power from the people as companies and organizations strive to remain in China’s good graces.

The Constitutions of China and the United States each enshrine freedom of speech, but China’s totalitarian regime has long employed a narrow view of that freedom, and American companies have long accepted those restrictions when doing business in China. Now, however, China is seeking to control not only what is said in China, but what is being said about China. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States finds itself in a contest of ideas and principles with a country in its own weight class. This time however, the United States and China are economically intertwined: the trade volume between the two countries is the greatest of any between two countries in the history of the world, and the mutual dependency that has been formed must be maintained for the economic health of both entities, a form of mutually assured destruction dubbed “Chimerica.”

While many NBA partners have spoken out saying China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is non-negotiable, China’s message to foreign companies and their employees seems to speak even louder: watch what you say about us if you want to continue business here. This hardball response to Morey and the NBA fits a pattern of threats against foreign organizations which stumble into the country's sensitive internal politics. China’s efforts to impose speech restrictions on international companies have largely succeeded. Last year, the Chinese government removed references to Taiwan from their websites. The Civil Aviation Administration of China sent a letter to more than forty foreign airlines telling them that they should not place China, Hong Kong and Taiwan on equal footing, and must refer to “China Taiwan” or the “China Taiwan region.” The four American airlines affected by this order, American, Delta, Hawaiian, and United, complied with China’s orders wholeheartedly. Other recent capitulations include fashion retailer Coach recalling t-shirts that read “Hong Kong,” instead of “Hong Kong, China,” and Marriott firing a social media manager in Omaha for “liking” a tweet posted by a group that backs Tibetan separatists. Some companies have tried to evade the issue altogether by insisting that they simply want to ‘avoid politics.’ Blizzard Entertainment, a subsidiary of the California video game maker Activision Blizzard, banned an esports player for shouting “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” during an online tournament, and confiscated $10,000 USD in winnings. The company, which later returned the money and reduced the ban to a six-month suspension, said it would have taken the same action if the player had shouted in opposition to the Hong Kong protesters.

There is no easy answer to the question of how international firms should do business in China. However, we have clearly seen what hasn’t worked. President Trump has weakened the ability of American companies to stand for American values, including free expression, by failing to firmly oppose China’s demands. A White House spokeswoman last year described China’s order to airlines as “Orwellian nonsense,” but the Trump administration, which has been quick to threaten China with harsh consequences for its trade policies, did not defend the airlines by warning of similar consequences to China’s efforts to suppress free speech. If American companies are to stand up for American values, the U.S. government should be in their corner.

Furthermore, we can look at America’s response to Beijing’s efforts to manage foreign corporate influence in the country, too. The Chinese government views American corporations as vehicles for American political influence. The fact that a laundry list of high-level U.S. politicians have commented on the dispute while the U.S. is negotiating a trade deal with China only proves that Beijing is right to see incursions by U.S. businesses into China as a threat. Seen in this light, arguments that the NBA should insist on American speech rules in China are arguments for using American corporate power to meddle in another state. This would trouble a country in any context, but it is likely especially worrying given the United States’ history of virulent and aggressive corporate imperialism. The ultimate question then becomes: who has the upper hand, and what will it cost to wield economic power?

China’s clear efforts to subvert American expressions of free speech and American firms’ clear willingness to abide by Chinese interests on Chinese territory makes it probable that American values of free speech will gradually deteriorate abroad. Unfortunately, the American government is doing a poor job of reinforcing these values through international business partnerships. An active stance by the U.S. government for freedom of speech can strengthen American companies’ exercise of speech both domestically and globally, thus maintaining the balance of free speech and national sovereignty that is essential to unsettling Chinese encroaching soft power.

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