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How Business in China Becomes Ethically Expensive

Hong Kong raises the cost of rights and freedoms rhetoric steeply. Many advocates are bowing out

Why is the NBA trying to save face after a tweet from the Rockets’ GM in support of Hong Kong? Why did every broadcaster at ESPN (owned by Disney) get an internal memo saying that radio and television hosts cannot comment on the politics of Hong Kong? Why has Apple removed the Taiwan flag from its iOS emojis in Hong Kong? Why was “The Ancient One” in Marvel’s Dr. Strange (again, owned by Disney) switched from a Tibetan monk, as in the original comics, to a British actress?*

Answer to all the questions above: To ingratiate China.

American companies are finding that they cannot please everyone, particularly when the two largest countries, by GDP—the U.S. and China–have diametrically opposed views of human rights and freedoms.

Ten years ago American companies justified working with China as a way to bring Western democratic ideals to the Communist country. Instead, China is bringing its totalitarian ideals to bear on U.S companies. Chris Meserole of the Brookings Institute doubts that the public understands just how intertwined the American and Chinese economies are: “The Chinese government understands that it wields tremendous power over US businesses in exchange for access to the market.”

Apple learns to love Big Brother after all

In reality, tech companies have been acquiescing to China’s censorship rules for years, Apple being one of the most overt—and for good reason. Tech writer Clay Shirky noted in Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream that the iPhone is a status symbol in China, much more so than in the United States (p. 60).

Not only does Apple have a huge consumer base in China, but China serves as a manufacturing hub for much of its hardware. So it comes as less of a surprise that, during the Hong Kong protests, Apple removed a Hong Kong traffic and police monitoring app (HKmap.live) from the Hong Kong Apple Store for the dubious reason that the app posed a threat to police. The app doesn’t show real-time movement of individual police, only large areas of activity. Apple also removed several media apps, including the online magazine Quartz,, which has been providing detailed coverage of the Hong Kong situation.

Apple’s abject posture is all the more surprising to those old enough to remember an early Apple Superbowl ad (January 17, 1984) that riffed off George Orwell (1903–1950)’s 1984, which portrayed Apple as opposing totalitarianism:

Apple also removed the Taiwanese flag from its iOS emoji list because Taiwan’s existence affronts Beijing’s “one-China” policy—something several clothing brands have learned the hard way. Versace, Givenchy, they’re all apologizing to China for doubting Beijing’s disputed territorial claims.

In the famous Apple ad, we heard: “1984 won’t be like 1984.” But, across the globe, 2020 will be like 1984, at least in some respects, if Beijing can help it and others acquiesce.

The NBA bounces quickly into line

However, as singer and pro-democracy activist Denise Ho told Newsweek,

the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to silence all voices of dissent is putting it in a “very difficult situation.” Beijing is attempting to portray China as strong and united, but in suppressing opposition “they are only making everyone angrier, and the voices even louder,” Ho suggested…

This campaign has been going on for years, but this week’s furore involving the NBA, Blizzard and South Park has brought it to the fore. As Ho explained, China’s zealotry is “only making the international community even more aware of what’s happening, not only in Hong Kong but already in the rest of the world.”

David Brennan , “World must resist Chinese ‘bullying’ after corporate censorship scandals, Hong Kong pro-democracy singer Denise Ho says” at Newsweek (October 11, 2019)

The NBA’s widely publicized compliance has served as an object lesson. When American businesses do not play by China’s rules, China uses its 1.4 billion people as leverage. Even if only a small fraction of the population of China cares about basketball, a small percentage of 1.4 billion is a significant source of revenue. In fact, the Chinese market makes up 10% of the NBA’s revenue and stands to make up more in the future. Thus, an American business that displeases the Chinese Communist Party can be blocked from access to the fans.

Under other circumstances, when Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” it shouldn’t have been a huge deal. The NBA has been a strong advocate of social justice and both players and coaches have taken positions on various causes and issues. But China is different. Not long afterward, Morey was informed of his blunder, deleted the tweet, and issued an apology. The timing was particularly awkward because the NBA was playing pre-season games in China that week. The NBA issued two public apologies, one in English and a much more obsequious apology in Chinese.

The apologies were not enough. China decided to pull Rockets’ gear out of their stores and CCTV would not televise the games. Since then, the NBA has been scrambling to appease China, calling on players and coaches, many of whom have been heard on human rights issues in the past, to denounce the Rockets GM’s tweet and to keep silent on the Hong Kong situation. Star player LeBron James went so far as to question whether free speech is always a good idea, suggesting that the tweet could have waited a week (apparently referring to the security issues surrounding the games played in China). Similarly, Warriors’ Coach Steve Kerr, whose father was murdered by terrorists in Beirut, is normally outspoken on political issues but said he’d have to check with his brother, who is an academic, in this case.

One NBA player who has not tip-toed around the subject was Enes Kanter, a Turk who has been vocal about his disagreement with the Turkish government and its leader Tayyip Erdogan. He responded to LeBron James’s comments by tweeting “SMH” (shaking my head), and then listing all the misfortunes he and his family experienced as a result of resisting the Turkish government, including harassment, death threats, and exile. He ended his tweet by saying “Freedom is not free,” in stark contrast to fellow players.

A tweet may get its author in trouble even in this country but “liking” a tweet is usually a trivial matter. Not to China. One of ESPN’s top NBA journalists, Adrian Wojnarowski, had his Chinese basketball show, Woj in the House, canceled after he liked Morey’s tweet in a typically harsh reaction to ignoring the Party’s internet policies. An American who wants to do business with China can’t even “like” a statement on a social media platform not used in mainland China.

Yuan Fang, a former employee of ESPN and founder of Fountainhead Sports in Beijing, posted a lengthy diatribe on Weibo about the Morey tweet and Wojnarwski’s like. He rightly pointed out that Americans self-censor for political correctness all of the time and can lose their jobs if they say the wrong thing about the wrong people group: “… America has a very stringent culture of political correctness. Any opinions you express about black people, minorities, women, etc. can have very serious consequences.”

But Fang wrongly likens voluntary self-censorship that avoids giving social offense to systematic censorship by the authorities of one country on citizens of another for clearly political purposes. He then gets to his real point:

… there’s a certain group of Americans – especially very high-class ones who do business with China – who won’t say these things [e.g., Taiwan is its own country, that Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet should split off], express these things, tweet these things, ‘like’ these things because they maintain a modicum of respect for China and they are not willing to complicated [sic] matters and lose business for the sake of things that have nothing to do with them…If you want to become even more popular, make even more money – no problem. But if you have to understand that China is not a country of moneyed idiots. You have to understand, in this world, there is only one China.

Lara Wagner, “The Future Of Adrian Wojnarowski’s Tencent Show Is Up In The Air After He “Liked” Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong Tweet [Update]” at Deadspin

Respect, it seems, is a one-way street.

Gamers raise the stakes

Several days after the NBA fiasco, gaming and entertainment company Activision Blizzard (which is 5% owned by the Chinese company Tencent) received backlash from its U.S. fans after severely reprimanding a grandmaster Hearthstone player, Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai from Hong Kong, for wearing a face mask and saying “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our time” in Chinese during a post-match interview on a Taiwanese video stream. The original punishment, which was out of proportion for the offense, was a one-year ban from competition, a crushing career blow for a professional e-sport player, and revoking his winnings from the tournament (approximately $10,000). And, for reasons that remain unclear, both of the Taiwanese casters who interviewed Chung were fired.

The subsequent pushback from players and Blizzard employees included a walkout at Blizzard headquarters in California and employees covering up Blizzard’s slogan “every voice matters.” The company then decided to change Chung’s probation to six months. Blizzard also decided to give Chung his winnings, and re-hire the casters.

Notably, in another live stream of a Hearthstone match for an English-speaking audience, a team from American University held up a sign that said “Free Hong Kong. Boycott Blizz.” The team expected to be banned from the competition but they received only a reprimand from Blizzard. American University supported the students’ right to free speech. The team pointed out the double-standard on Reddit and forfeited their spot in protest.

Many commentators claim that American businesses can’t compete globally without doing business with China. But how far can businesses go to work with China without becoming subsumed by the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of surveillance with real-time censorship? Denise Ho, whose activism has got her banned from working in mainland China, says that the world must make China understand “that they cannot have it both ways, and they cannot come with their money and their market to destroy the universal values that the rest of the world holds.”

  • Note: For more ways that American companies have acquiesced to China’s censorship rules, see “14 Times American Companies Self-Censored or Apologized to Appease Communist China,” Madeline Osburn, The Federalist, 10/10/19.

The unadvertised cost of doing business with China: It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules. In China, censorship includes democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

Hong Kong: Face mask ban fuels fiercer protest: The masks, like many of the protesters’ strategies, circumvent China’s omnipresent high-tech surveillance

Can China really silence Hong Kong? Hong Kong is tech-savvy and the protesters are adept at defeating high-tech assaults. Some protestors use umbrellas to block the view of newly installed surveillance cameras while others dismantle the electronics. Others place traffic cones over tear gas canisters and then neutralize the gas with water.

What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.

The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uighurs, a strategically critical minority.


Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

How Business in China Becomes Ethically Expensive