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From the case of Rockets: how China is forcing international corporations to bow

  • Opinion

By Chung Man Leung, MSc International Politics

More than a decade ago when China joined the World Trade Organization and showed an indication as a rising global superpower, some scholars came up with the China threat theory, mainly stated that China would eventually turn into a big threat to global peace, stability and security. As a response, the Chinese government insisted they would only develop peacefully, and they would never seek to become a hegemonic force. In general, the world has placed their faith in the country, and they would like to see China grow as a responsible world leader that it can actively engage with international affairs, and most importantly, to import democratic values to its society during the process.

Unfortunately, such expectations have never really been fulfilled. It even becomes worse after Xi Jinping, the current Chinese leader reached the top of the hierarchy and soon established himself as a ‘strongman’ in politics. A successful constitutional amendment in 2018 allows Xi to stay in the control position for more than two terms, which definitely allowed him to take a stronger stance in both national and international affairs. Western democracies’ beliefs that the Chinese society could be incorporate with liberal values have turned out to be a dream.

You could not criticize or provoke China while gaining huge profit from the Chinese market

Therefore, it actually came to no surprise when China and its people have such extreme response after NBA’s Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey supported Hong Kong’s pro-democratic movement on Twitter, in which he uploaded a picture with the words ‘Fight For Freedom; Stand With Hong Kong’. He soon deleted it and apologized, Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta also stressed that Morey’s opinion could not represent the Rockets’ organization. Yet, Chinese people simply do not buy it. They condemned that Morey is supporting Hong Kong independence (which is completely not the case) and is not respecting China’s sovereignty. Chinese brands such as LiNing and Peak also started to cancel their cooperation or sponsorship with the Rockets. What’s more, since NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver has issued a statement to support Morey’s right of free speech (and also stated that he respect Chinese history and culture), they threaten to boycott the NBA, as a result, CCTV and Tencent Sports have both announced that they would temporarily stop broadcasting the games, despite having signed million-worth contracts.

You could not criticize or provoke China while gaining huge profit from the Chinese market, this is the main notion from the Chinese perspective. The problem is, such notion just shows how arrogant and hegemonic the Chinese could be. Although Morey has emphasized that he had no intention to offend the Chinese, they were still not satisfied as they demanded the Rockets to sack him. Even more pathetically, some extreme netizens tweet images to support the 911 attack and slavery system, who claimed that they were exercising their freedom of speech, as a response to the US. It proves that many of the people in China basically just do not understand the universal values that we all embrace. On the contrary, they really enjoy the ability to intervene foreign companies’ policies and the superiority to force them to bow, which apparently is a success at ‘exporting Chinese political values’ to the West.

Forcing companies to censor themselves is not a new strategy by China. For instance, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific was compelled to sack pilots and flight attendants who support the movement, as the airline received pressure from China’s administration that a ban could be imposed to restrict flights entering the country’s airspace if these supporters are working on them. Moreover, Apple was urged to remove Quartz, a news app in the Chinese version of the App Store due to its coverage over the movement. The company has also removed the Taiwan flag as an emoji from its keyboard for users in Hong Kong and Macau because of China’s pressure again. Similar case applied to Blizzard Entertainment as well when it decided to cancel bonus and ban a Hong Kong esports player as he roared a slogan to support the movement during his post-match interview.

The Chinese market is so big and attractive that it is almost a no-brainer for foreign companies to apologize and censor themselves if they accidentally go against the Chinese’s will. Apparently it reflects how dangerous and risky doing business in China could be, because China’s bottom line is so vague and is always changing. When DJ Zedd could be permanently banned from China because he liked a tweet from SouthPark, it is definitely possible that the same consequence would pertain to anyone else. Some Westerners have already realized that these Chinese values would pose a threat to their own principles, thus, it is perhaps the right time for companies to rethink their relationship with China – whether they choose to stand with the liberal values, or blindly follow the game rules set by China to chase for money.

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