Zehner: Clamp Down

We should remain alert to the extent of China's influence.

by Callum Zehner | 10/17/19 2:10am

The protests that have wracked Hong Kong since June have been receiving support from a broad range of voices in the West, with everyone rightly joining in on the feel-good support of democracy against tyranny. However, while attention has been turned toward the fight for freedom in Hong Kong, the public has largely been distracted from mainland China’s insidious erosion of some of those very same freedoms in their own countries. China’s growing influence over what can and cannot be said is a frightening trend.

The most recent event to showcase the Chinese incursion into freedom of speech has, surprisingly, come from a scandal in the NBA. It began with a tweet from Daryl Morey, the head manager of the Houston Rockets. The tweet declared Morey’s support for the protests in Hong Kong, and ended with a slew of NBA officials stating their opposition to the message as well as an apology for Morey’s words. Lebron James weighed in two days ago, calling Morey’s tweet “misinformed.” Even James Harden, the Rockets’ posterboy, apologized and expressed his love for China. 

In financial terms, these were essential retractions to make. China is a huge source of revenue for the NBA, with the association expected to make around half a billion dollars from China alone this year. The risk of insulting China was made clear in the wake of the Morey tweet, with Chinese state television cutting the broadcast of Rockets’ games and Chinese firms ending sponsorships.

Here we see the idea of “soft power” at its clearest. China cannot directly prevent American firms and organizations from utilizing freedom of speech, but it can remind them that to do so would be very costly. The Rockets are estimated to lose $10 to $25 million from the fallout of Morey’s tweet. Any firm would be scared to lose access to the vast, growing Chinese market. With 1.4 billion people, the second-largest economy in the world and an expected middle class of 550 million by 2022, China has become an essential source of consumers and a destination for goods. 

This is the leverage that China exploits. In this way, discussions on the most controversial of Chinese topics — such as Tibetan separatism and containment camps in Xinjiang — can be silenced. Last year, for example, the Marriott hotel group’s Chinese website was suspended after it referred to Macau and Hong Kong as countries. Although potentially understandable, concessions of opinion for the sake of profit are nonetheless disappointing.

Standard discourse holds that China’s influence is mostly contained within its proximal areas, such as Central and Southeast Asia. Yet its tentacles stretch much further and have strong effects even on Western liberal bastions. Previously a stringent advocate for human rights, the Czech Republic has now become mute on the issue of Chinese human rights abuses as Chinese firms have bought large stakes in the Czech economy. And while it is easier for China to strong-arm smaller countries, it evidently has some control over the opinions heard in America nonetheless. Just as we worry about Russian influence in the 2016 election, we should be conscious of the quiet undertakings conducted by China.

Even out of the big-ticket realms of politics and business, the PRC’s reach is palpable. As someone who has worked and would like to work again in China, even I feel the risks at times. When writing pieces critical of China, I am always hesitant, keenly aware that each piece could prevent me from getting the necessary visas to go back. I would rather that not be the case, but each decision to criticize China or its actions is a weighted one.

As economies grow, diplomatic clout inevitably grows alongside them. In this sense, China’s covert pressure should not be seen as unusual. However, it equally should not be treated flippantly. With China increasingly impacting American and Western discourse, it will become more important to preserve freedom of speech whenever possible. Whether supporting or opposing the protests in Hong Kong, it is crucial that we retain the ability to express whichever view. This may seem an uncontroversial thing to say. Yet, under the current circumstances, it seems important to clarify. Freedom of speech will always be taken for granted wherever it exists. But when we have to contemplate what we should or should not say, and when we fear expressing our views, it should be clear that something is being lost. It is time to pay attention.