Home Commentary Protecting international free speech against Beijing's assault

Protecting international free speech against Beijing’s assault

China is leveraging its economic power as the world’s second-largest economy to infringe upon the free speech rights, common sense, and moral backbone of not only Chinese, but non-Chinese citizens around the world.


Through pressuring companies following incidents of employee speech, word or flag choice related to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or even Japan, all of which are deemed “sensitive” by China.

To protect non-Chinese citizens from being used as so many Chinese propaganda tools, we need stronger freedom of speech protections for employees and students, and some new regulations. We should require companies to back democracy and international law, rather than totalitarianism, on representations of, for example, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

China should not be able to force employers to fire employees who exercise their free speech rights in places such as the United States, Germany and Hong Kong. And, we need legislation that requires companies to recognize Taiwan for what it is: an independent country. Western companies should not depict maps of China as including the nine-dash line around the South China Sea, because the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that line invalid in 2016.

We know western companies typically agree with these approaches, but they need the rule of law to guide them to collectively oppose these most unreasonable of China’s demands.

Laissez faire in the west on these issues advantages Beijing’s hardball strategies and puts employers who want business with China in the awkward position of needing to chill employee free speech and force them to choose China’s version of reality, rather than democratic Taiwan’s, for example, simply because China’s economy is bigger and China’s strategy more aggressive.

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If allowed to continue, might makes right will lead to ever increasing Chinese power. We can legislate against it now, and defend ourselves, but we must act quickly.

China’s assault on free speech related to Taiwan and Hong Kong

The most recent viral incidents of China’s extraterritorial restrictions on free speech resulted from growing support for Hong Kong protests and Taiwan’s independence. In August, Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg had to quit after trying to defend his employees’ right to protest in Hong Kong despite the company’s reliance on China-controlled territories for its operations. The chairman of the board and the chief commercial officer also quit.

Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, had to delete a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests and walk back his comments in subsequent tweets. Star player on the team James Harden apologized as well, saying “we love China.”

The NBA issued two statements, one mealy-mouthed version in English that said while the values of the leagues supported free speech, the NBA hoped to bridge cultural divides with China, and one Chinese version on Weibo saying that the Morey tweet was “inappropriate.”  ESPN forbade discussion of the Hong Kong controversy, and aired a map that featured Taiwan as part of China, and the nine-dash line enclosing the South China Sea.

A Hong Kong gamer who said “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” on air, was initially suspended from a Blizzard Entertainment esports tournament for a year and lost $10,000 in winnings. Blizzard also suspended two shoutcasters from Taiwan who clapped after the statement, then (wisely) ducked under their desks. Following a gamer boycott of Blizzard, the company halved the suspensions to six months and reinstated the $10,000 winnings to the player, ‘Blitzchung,’ also known as Ng Wai Chung.

A student senator at the University of Queensland in Australia who has vocally supported the Hong Kong protests, claimed on Oct. 14 that his university forbid him from making pro-Hong Kong posts while describing himself as a representative of the university.

The student, Drew Pavlou, also claims that the university administration threatened his student enrollment over his criticism of the university’s Confucius Institute, and that he was assaulted during a Hong Kong protest in July. The next day, the Chinese Consul General in Brisbane published a defense of the counterprotesters, saying that the Consulate General “affirms the self-motivated patriotic behavior of the overseas Chinese students.”

The Global Times identified Pavlou as the organizer of the protest, and Pavlou’s social media was flooded with abuse and death threats. The Consul General is also an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland.

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Vans shoes and Tiffany jewelry both buckled to China recently over shoe and ad designs, respectively, that were interpreted as supportive to Hong Kong protests. Apple, Audi, Mercedes, Marriot, Viacom, Dreamworks, Muji, Swarovski, Nike, Ray Ban, Gap, Coach, Versace, Zara, Medtronic, Goldman Sachs, American Express, American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines have all capitulated to China’s demands and threats, some by delisting Taiwan as a sovereign country on official company websites and showing the South China Sea as enclosed by China’s nine-dash line.

What makes these incidents a global threat to freedom of speech and democracy is that authoritarian China has power not only over its own companies and employees within its borders, which is bad enough, but over companies and the actions of those companies outside its borders, and over the expressed opinions of international employees and students even when they are not at work or are using their personal social media accounts.

Cathay Pacific is a Hong Kong company, the Houston Rockets is a U.S. company and member of the NBA, and Activision Blizzard, the parent of Blizzard Entertainment, is a U.S.  company. Activision Blizzard is 10 percent owned by Tencent, a Chinese company. ESPN is owned by Disney, an American company.

Laissez-faire approach to protecting free speech from China

The laissez-faire tradition of free market economics is philosophically against state-requirements for private enterprise that might address China’s extraterritorial violation of free speech. So libertarian proponents of no state action being the best state action will take heart from examples of companies that individually thumb their noses at Beijing from purely free market motives. These companies will be rewarded by their customers, goes the theory, if their customers truly care about freedom of speech and the values expressed with that freedom.

On Oct. 8, Cisco poked the tiger by offering free pairs of umbrella socks to IT security professionals who attend a webinar. Umbrellas have become symbolic of the Hong Kong protests. A tweet with the offer was still circulating on Oct. 13. But even cases of mild potential rebellion by companies can mask their deeper involvement with China. Cisco is an American company that has received criticism for supplying China with surveillance technology used against dissidents.

The animated series South Park took a much louder and more blatant stand this month with programming that had highly negative depictions of China, including its practice of banning companies from its markets in retaliation for actions deemed contrary to China’s interests.

China banned South Park and censored it on China’s internet. The series is developed for the Comedy Central television network which is owned by Viacom. While Viacom has programming in China that it has sought to sell since at least January, it seems not to have censured South Park on the matter.

Watch some of the South Park episode below.

Viacom in other matters, however, has apparently censored its media to comply with Beijing, including the removal of not only a Taiwan flag, but a Japanese flag from the flight jacket of Tom Cruise in a “Top Gun: Maverick” trailer. Viacom’s partner in production of the movie is China’s Tencent.

U.S. politicians have taken a stand against Chinese attempts to censor American citizens through pressure on their employers. President Trump, and Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, all quickly criticized the NBA for its criticism of Morey’s tweet in favor of the Hong Kong protests. While Trump criticized the NBA, he was careful in his response to questions on the matter not to criticize China, from whom he is seeking a trade deal.

While the support of a few companies and politicians against China’s censorship is heartening, it is the exception that proves the rule. And, the mixed records of even these ‘rebellious’ companies should give us pause before expecting the free market to solve China’s extraterritorial violation of free speech.

Most companies and politicians are silent on China’s worst abuses because they fear any support to democracy and human rights in China’s claimed territories would lead to lack of corporate access to all of China’s markets. For politicians, that could mean a reduction in campaign contributions from those corporations that need political support for their China operations. Thus, the public good of defeating China cannot reliably be provided for if it depends on the private sacrifices of the willing.

A collective action problem exists.

All companies would be better off if all acted to stop the threat, but each is incentivized to let others incur the costs and risks, free riding on their costly heroism.

So, we can conclude that hoping the market will solve China’s extraterritorial violations of free speech is naive. We have seen the market in operation, and the China part of that market is sufficiently lucrative to suck nearly all oxygen of support for democracy out of multinational corporate ethics, leaving just the profit motive in its place. We should expect nothing more from such large corporations, who according to their fiduciary duties must maximize shareholder value.

New legislation to protect free speech from China

If too few companies and politicians step up to the challenge of defeating China’s authoritarianism because of a collective action problem, legislation is needed to ensure a collective solution. One way to stop China from using its economic power against international companies, and through them against the free speech rights of their employees, for example, is to institute greater legal protections for employees and students who exercise their free speech.

While this would not stop China from retaliating against companies for the actions of their employees, it would make such retaliation less effective at stopping employee free speech. If the retaliation is ineffective, it is less likely to happen.

Employees in the U.S. already have a First Amendment right to free speech, but that has not been interpreted by the courts to include protection of free speech from employers who do not like what employees might have to say, even when such speech takes place during non-working hours. In Hong Kong, the rule of law is crumbling, as are free speech protections of any sort. Cathay Pacific told employees in August that those who supported ‘illegal protests’ in Hong Kong would be fired, as were two pilots.

Europe has stronger protections of employee free speech than does the U.S. and Hong Kong. But even in Europe, non-work employee speech can be chilled through CEO instructions to employees that show displeasure or sensitivity with political speech. The world’s biggest gaming platform, Germany’s ESL, recently signed a deal with China. A few days after the Blizzard controversy, ESL sent a letter to more than 700 employees that instructed them not to use the ESL brand to promote personal political views. It hastened to add that employees could use their own social media for personal views, but even so, the likely chilling effect on freedom of speech should be apparent.

Western companies typically enjoy the freedom to operate as they will in order to allow the free market to operate. They need freedom to innovate, and to incentivize their risk taking. But sometimes too much freedom can ultimately hurt them. Corporations accept laws against monopolies, corruption, and environmental destruction because they know that in the long-run those laws help the free enterprise system prosper.

Now that companies are increasingly global and seek markets in China, the country has taken unprecedented steps to seek illiberal political concessions in return. Laws will therefore be needed to stop rewarding China’s threats. These laws should be similar in effect to laws against paying ransoms to kidnappers or policies against rewarding terrorism.

Laws to protect the free speech of employees and students, and to require respect for democratic Taiwan’s sovereignty and UNCLOS, would similarly protect countries in the long run, because they would help deter companies from rewarding China for its threats against precisely that freedom of speech, international law, and democracy in Asia, that will ultimately help protect global democracies in the future.

Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LICAS News.

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