How Do You Solve a Problem Like China?

When even those who are usually outspoken about human rights toe Beijing’s line on the Hong Kong protests, you know China has a disturbing amount of influence on American businesses and U.S. politics. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia/Hf9631/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In case one requires a lesson about the long arm of Chinese influence in the United States, one need look no further than the recent fracas surrounding Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong protests tweet.

The backlash in China to Morey’s errant post was sizable and swift. Live games and other upcoming promotional events were cancelled. Multiple Chinese sponsors announced their decision to cut business ties with the Rockets organization or the NBA outright and Chinese state television vowed to no longer air Rockets preseason games. In addition, Houston potentially faces $25 million in sponsorship boycotts and the league could see a hit to player contract monies owing to the newfound hostility.

Oof. Talk about the power of social media.

The magnitude of the Chinese reaction to criticism from one basketball executive is somewhat surprising in it of itself. All that for one tweet, which yielded an apology from Morey? What is more startling, if not unsettling, though, is how little support the Rockets GM has seemed to get in the United States.

Tilman Fertitta, billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets, for one, public distanced Morey’s comments from the team’s position, stating explicitly that the club is not a “political organization.” Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and billionaire businessman in his own right, also condemned Morey’s support for the Hong Kong protests, characterizing the situation as a “third-rail issue” not to be touched and voicing his displeasure with the “separatist movement” of which these protests evidently are a part. Even the league itself has offered contradictory sentiments of support and regret, on one hand defending Morey’s right to self-expression but in the same breath deeply apologizing to China and its NBA fans in Chinese.

Morey’s and the NBA’s cautionary tale, so to speak, is not the only one lately to garner media attention. When Chung Ng Wai, a pro Hearthstone player who goes by “Blitzchung,” made a show of support for the Hong Kong protests during a Grandmasters tournament, he was removed from the competition, had his prize money forfeited, and was banned from tournament play by Blizzard, the game’s maker, for a year. Blizzard has since reduced the length of the ban and reinstated his winnings, but not before a public outcry earned the company strong criticism and spawned talk of boycotts and protests.

Apple and Google sparked outrage as well when they removed apps used by protesters or that were otherwise evocative of the protests/were vaguely supportive. Apple indicated it acted because the app in question allegedly was being used to target law enforcement officials and Hong Kong residents, a charge disputed by protest supporters. Google claims it removed The Revolution of Our Times for capitalizing on a sensitive event such as conflict.

Sound business practice or kowtowing to a censorious Chinese communist regime widely regarded as a human rights abuser in the name of money? Who’s pulling the strings? These are the kinds of questions major corporations like Apple, Blizzard, Google, and the NBA face in the wake of decisions that appear to favor the latter condition. It doesn’t help their cases that their various responses were made so quickly, and for Blizzard, arguably so disproportionately, at least initially. If what some believe is true, it’s not a question of whether these companies will jump, but how high.

This is part of the problem with China, a country that is a major player on the world stage and is seemingly unhappy with the amount of control it has in global affairs, including what people say about it and how. As Bill Bishop, author of the newsletter Sinocism, writes in an entry about the Morey-NBA flap with China entitled “The NBA’s poisoned China chalice,” Beijing doesn’t just want to be part of the conversation—it wants to lead the discourse. Bishop writes:

The broader context for this crisis is that the [Chinese Communist Party] has long pushed to increase its “international discourse power 国际话语权“, and as with many things its efforts have intensified under Xi. The idea is that China’s share of international voice is not commensurate with its growing economic, military and cultural power and that the Party should have much more control over the global discussion of all things Chinese, in any language, anywhere.

The Party is taking at least a two-track approach to rectifying this problem. On the one hand it is launching, buying, co-opting and coercing overseas media outlets. On the other it uses the power of the Chinese market to co-opt and coerce global businesses, their executives and other elite voices.

From the looks of it, these obeisant acts on the part of aforementioned American multinationals fit the second category. Never mind trying to influence politicians or meddle with elections. This takes a direct route to the heart of U.S. business, and including executives like Adam Silver and Tim Cook, nonetheless impacts influential figures who may yet have a voice in the domestic political discussion. Paired with a multi-million-dollar media campaign designed to shape public opinion and policy in the United States, China is anything but a passive player in the global politics of power.

Such is why, for the spotlight that has been shone on Russian interference in our elections and hacking of campaign infrastructures, the shadow China casts on American commerce (not to mention the amount of our debt it holds and potential attempts to steal intellectual property and other secrets) seemingly hasn’t had its due consideration. If China’s flexing to minimize criticism of its handling of the Hong Kong protests is any indication, the United States and other relevant world powers are highly susceptible to Beijing’s reactionary demands, right down to their more socially-conscious participants. As citizens and conscientious consumers, the scope of Chinese authority should concern us.


For those who have been sounding the alarm about China for years, that it might be something like Beijing’s knee-jerk retaliation against the NBA and the Houston Rockets organization or Blizzard’s Hearthstone debacle to affect the public consciousness is striking, although one supposes it may as well be one of these circumstances. In either of these instances, the shift in attention from the masses simply may have finally intersected with an area of importance to them, a milieu they conceivably enjoyed irrespective of their political leanings. Certainly, the duration and visibility of the Hong Kong protests helps in this regard.

Regardless of why there is such a strong focus all of a sudden on corporate management of the China-Hong Kong relationship, the realization across industries that politics does, in fact, play a role and compels executive leadership to take a meaningful stand is a critical one. Before, NBA figures such as Gregg Popovich, LeBron James, and Steve Kerr known for being outspoken on political and social issues in the United States might have gotten a pass for equivocating on the subject of China. Now, they’re getting their due criticism, or in the case of LeBron, having their jersey burned in a protest within the Hong Kong protests. To say the paradigm has changed would seem to be an understatement.

CNBC contributor Jake Novak, for one, marvels at how the NBA’s China fiasco has struck a nerve when years of reporting and pundits’ observations about how China hasn’t lived up to its promises to be a model state haven’t hit their mark, calling the ensuing fallout “just the wake-up call the world needed.”

As Novak explains, despite increasing economic engagement with the West, China, in numerous ways, has become or has tried to become more repressive and secretive. With Google’s help, no less, it worked on a government-censored search engine under the code name “Dragonfly” that only this past summer was terminated. It holds millions of people, many of them members of ethnic minority groups, in “counter-extremism centers” or “re-education camps,” and otherwise tramples on human rights, brutally punishing dissent. Militarily, China has built its forces to antagonistic levels, making bold shows of force repeatedly in the South China Sea before its neighbors. In addition, China’s lack of transparency concerning its international lending practices obscures the true level of debt (and therefore, risk) the global economy faces. This is the business partner countless American multinationals have chosen, a partner that fancies itself a victim in countless scenarios despite a pattern of aggression.

Of course, America is no saint when it comes to observation of human rights and respecting the autonomy of foreign lands, a notion much more glaring under would-be dictator Donald Trump. Attempted moral equivalencies by Kerr et al. aside, China’s quest to insinuate itself across state lines and continental divides is a problem not just for the U.S., but the world. Furthermore, it’s one that corporate America can be instrumental in addressing.

So, getting to the central question: how do we solve a problem like China? As James Palmer, senior editor at Foreign Policy, quoted in Bishop’s post instructs, part of the solution lies in boycotts, public shaming, and protests against company leadership that does business with China’s repressive regime under Xi Jinping. Also, Congress will likely have to intercede, calling on executives to testify about the deals they’ve made and threatening contracts and tax breaks for failure to comply with existing laws or for otherwise unsatisfactory answers.

Such is the good news: that we can take concrete steps to hold China and its enablers accountable for their misdeeds. The bad news? We’re, ahem, relying on consumer political participation and the efficacy of Congress, neither of which is a guarantee. As Novak suggests, the NBA is unlikely to be crippled by boycotts any more than the NFL was by fans upset over Colin Kaepernick. Bishop, in response to Palmer’s sentiments, is “not optimistic” on either front. Amid an emphasis on social responsibility—feigned or not—by chief executives and tough talk from politicians, the talk of the Chinese market’s money would appear to carry further.

In terms of solving our China “problem,” then, we may ultimately be more successful catching a cloud and pinning it down, or holding a moonbeam in our hand.

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