It has all been so vague and furious and quick. First, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted and then deleted a post last weekend supporting the protests in Hong Kong. When Chinese sponsors fled, the Chinese Basketball Association suspended cooperation with the team and the Internet giant Tencent stopped streaming Rockets games, Morey and the team’s owner expressed regret, and droves of fans and politicians flayed the league for abasing itself. A few days later, National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement supporting free speech, and the scandal began to subside; the editor of the Global Times communist tabloid seemed to speak of Chinese sentiment when he said his paper “will not push to keep it hot.”
But the greatest act of villainous, hypocritical cowardice this past week didn’t come from the NBA. At the height of the controversy, a senior news director at ESPN mandated that the network’s coverage “avoid any political discussions about China and Hong Kong,” according to Deadspin’s summary of a leaked memo — a shocking directive for the biggest political sports story of 2019. ESPN even broadcast a map that included Taiwan as part of China and a dotted line to represent China’s disputed claims in the South China Sea. “I’ve literally never seen that map outside of China,” tweeted Julian Ku, an expert on Chinese law. It was the most telling illustration yet of a major problem in U.S.-China relations.
Criticism of China’s unfair treatment of American companies has focused on technology transfers, state support of domestic businesses and intellectual-property theft. But Beijing doesn’t just want foreign companies to advance its economic interests. It wants them to advance its political ones, too. In subtle and sophisticated ways, Beijing convinces, cajoles and cudgels American companies to promote the values of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, parrot the party’s views and enshrine self-censorship about China in their corporate cultures. When it’s successful, as with ESPN, the company advances Chinese propaganda.
One way American companies protect the party’s view is by suppressing negative information; Morey did this when he deleted his tweet. So did Activision Blizzard, an American entertainment company that required a professional video gamer to forfeit $10,000 in prize money for shouting, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” in a post-match interview. Beijing does not want to weaken these companies or push them out of China. Instead, it wants them to follow the party’s rules, both in China and globally. “China doesn’t just want you to comply with its wishes,” a Singaporean diplomat told a newspaper last year. It wants you to “do what it wants without being told.” Although Tencent owns 5 percent of Activision Blizzard and ESPN owner Disney has worked to mollify the party for decades, it seems unlikely that any Chinese source told officials how to act or which map to use. They had internalized Beijing’s demands.
The other way U.S. companies promote China’s views is by amplifying positive information. In January 2018, Marriott sent guests an online survey that listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macao as countries, and a U.S.-based employee of the hotel chain liked a Twitter post about the nationhood of Tibet, a Chinese region where some citizens want independence. Beijing decided to make an example of Marriott — a company thriving in China, with more than 300 hotels there: It required Marriott to shut down all of its Chinese websites and apps for seven days. Sounding like a Chinese propaganda organ, the company announced that it didn’t support “separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” Then, to amplify the positive, Marriott announced an “eight-point rectification plan” to “regain confidence and trust.” Part of the plan, according to the Hong Kong Free Press, included “expanding employee education globally” — i.e., educating its staff on Chinese propaganda. A Versace statement this year was even more groveling. In August, after an outcry over a T-shirt that implied Hong Kong was independent, the luxury clothing brand affirmed that “we love China and resolutely respect the sovereignty of its territory.”
Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping calls this “discourse power” — the ability to shape the narrative and “tell China’s story well.” And foreign companies and their employees are excellent proxies for evangelizing China’s position. In other words, while the United States excels in soft power, China wins in what we could call proxy power. When retired Chinese basketball star Yao Ming praises China, Americans expect it. When Houston Rockets star James Harden apologizes for his team and professes that “we love China” and “everything there about them,” that feels more heartfelt. Though Harden’s sentiments may be sincere, his contrition advances Beijing’s propaganda goals.
Sometimes, when China punishes a foreign company for violating unstated rules, no one bothers to explain how to rectify the crime. The Chinese sportswear firm Anta, for example, simply canceled contract negotiations with the NBA because the league’s words were “wrong.” To restore their good standing, executives must supplicate, with minimal guidance from the party-state. “The NBA has been in cooperation with China for many years,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a Tuesday news conference. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”
Other times, Beijing has specific demands. In July 2018, China required global airlines in all their communications to stop implying that Taiwan was independent from the mainland. A United Airlines flight, for instance, now departs from “San Francisco, CA, US” and lands simply in “Taipei,” orphaning Taiwan’s capital. Now that no major international airlines refer to Taiwan as a country, it would be newsworthy if any of their employees, advertisements or affiliates said otherwise. It’s much safer to self-censor than to risk a scandal that could cost revenue. One day in January 2018, China’s Cyberspace Administration ordered the clothing retailer Zara and the world’s largest medical device company, Medtronic, to post apologies by 6 p.m. that evening for labeling Taiwan as a separate country on their websites. It also demanded that the companies “conduct a comprehensive self-examination” to make sure there were no violations elsewhere on their sites. Both companies complied.
It’s not a new phenomenon. “If you want to deal in China, you will sing their tune,” James Lilley, American ambassador to China from 1989 to 1991, told the journalist John Judis in 1997. What has changed since Xi assumed power in 2012, and especially over the past few years, is that Beijing now has the confidence and the market heft to threaten convincingly. Its ultimatums terrify executives. China’s gross domestic product surpassed $13 trillion in 2018 — a more-than-tenfold increase over 2000.
Moreover, because self-abasement in China can carry reputational costs in the United States, corporations increasingly speak with a pro-Beijing message, so they don’t have to look like they’re caving when the party calls them out. No company wants a pummeling like the NBA is currently receiving from American politicians, columnists and fans.
Beijing doesn’t force these companies to self-censor because it cannot tolerate dissent or because the party is so brittle that criticism would destroy it. Rather, it does so because it can. This is an effective public relations strategy, honed over decades, that co-opts some foreigners into facilitating the spread of Chinese propaganda. While there are risks of overplaying — a prolonged NBA scandal, for example, could cause Chinese fans to direct their anger not only at the league but at Beijing — it has succeeded in creating a coterie of Western chief executives petrified of offending Beijing.
Will the NBA be one of the rare exceptions? In his statement, Silver said, “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.” But just two days later, a Houston Rockets executive blocked a CNN reporter from asking about the China scandal. “We’re taking basketball questions only,” she said. That is discourse power.