OPINION: Western companies can’t just bow down to China


Ricky Barker, Columnist

 Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, wrote, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” on Twitter Oct. 4. Seemingly, this would be an unproblematic message in the United States, standing with people who are fighting for civil rights in another country. However, Morey deleted the tweet after few hours.

 The NBA quickly released an apology for the statement, stating the views expressed by  Morey “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” 

China, however, was not having any of it and temporarily stopped broadcast of NBA games within the country. All of the NBA’s official Chinese partners, like the Chinese fast food chain Discos and the Chinese travel website Ctrip, cut ties with the association, handing out a harsh economic punishment to the NBA for one employee speaking his mind. A massive blow to the NBA, whose total worth in China is $4 billion.

Nike, smelling the blood in the water, quickly removed all Houston Rockets merchandise from their stores in China. 

And, just with the power of its market, the Chinese government managed to silence its opposition in the NBA and make any trace of a team disappear from the country.

This is a high profile case, but the NBA is not the only western organization to bow down at China’s whims. Many companies across all industries are now apologizing or changing their practices to appease Beijing.

Last year,  The Gap Inc. issued an apology to the Chinese government after releasing a shirt featuring a map of China omitting Taiwan. The Taiwanese consider themselves a separate republic, but China claims ownership of the island. The company quickly apologized, saying it respected the territorial integrity of China. Versace faced a similar situation when it released a shirt listing Hong Kong as a city separate from China. Versace ended up destroying the rest of the shirts.

Countless international airlines, such as Air France and British Airways, got in trouble with Beijing after listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate places from China on their booking websites. Many of them quickly rectified this after demands from the Chinese government calling them to fix their “mistake.”

Marriott Hotels apologized to Beijing after it listed Taiwan, Macua and Hong Kong as separate countries in an email to customers.

The entertainment industry is also going out of its way to appease Beijing. The sequel to “Top Gun” replaced the Taiwanese flag from the main character’s flight jacket with the social acceptable Chinese flag. Video game company Blizzard recently banned the winner of a video game tournament after they used the platform to make a statement supporting Hong Kong and then offered its deepest apologies to China.

This is just a small selection of examples, and there are countless more, which are happening more frequently. Companies will continue to bow down to China as long as money takes precedence over morals.

Every western company wants to claim it values the tenets of democracy and freedom of speech. However, as is often the case, when push comes to shove, ideology gets thrown out the door.

China is an enormous market with 1.3 billion customers to reach. It’s hard to blame companies for acting submissive to the demands of the Chinese government; they are the gatekeepers to a huge market.

That being said, it’s a poor excuse. Some things are more important than making stockholders happy. If every western company listens to the demands of a tyrannical government, where will it go from there? What can China make companies do with such a large economical carrot dangling in front of them? 

When companies start undermining basic human rights to freedom of speech, it becomes a slippery slope. China is responsible for some of the worst crimes against human rights in the world. Right now, Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs are being brutally tortured in so-called re-education camps. Companies need to stand their ground and defend rights that mean more than any amount of money.

When a “South Park” episode on Chinese government censorship was banned in China, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s reaction was a valuable attitude lesson for western companies, as they said that “like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”