As pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continue to escalate in frequency and violence, the Chinese government is forcing many American businesses to either comply with censorship demands or face penalties.
The mass demonstrations, which initially demanded the withdrawal of a bill that would allow for the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, quickly evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement following the Chinese government’s refusal to withdraw the bill after the first protests.
In the midst of the raging trade war between the United States and China, most businesses have chosen to acquiesce to Chinese Communist Party demands rather than deal with the consequences of refusing to comply. Ultimately, by choosing profits over human rights, these companies have set a worrying precedent to consumers throughout the world.
In early October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey took to Twitter to support Hong Kong protesters in a pro-democracy message, which he was forced to delete and apologize for shortly after. The NBA quickly distanced itself from Morey’s views in an attempt to preserve business in China, but the Chinese Basketball Association and several Chinese sponsors suspended their work with the team. The NBA’s response drew ire from American and Hong Kong citizens alike, and U.S. senators from both parties issued statements condemning the association’s actions.
Several days later, American video game developer Activision Blizzard announced that it would suspend a professional player of Hearthstone, a digital card game, for a year and confiscate his winnings after he used the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time” in an interview. The severity of the penalty drew heavy backlash from more senators and Blizzard’s non-Chinese player base, with some stating on Twitter and Reddit that they would boycott the company’s products.
While corporations have previously censored art in movies, television shows and video games to comply with Chinese demands, Blizzard’s actions show that major companies are no longer simply working within the confines of Chinese censorship; they are acting as its agents.
Around the same time, American jewelry retailer Tiffany & Co. withdrew an advertisement featuring a model covering one eye after Chinese consumers accused the company of using a pose adopted by protesters. Vans pulled a sneaker design competition entry that made several references to the demonstrations, and Apple and Google have removed protest-related apps from the App Store and Play Store, respectively. This disturbing trend should be wake-up call to consumers, revealing companies’ willingness to comply with and even support the systematic oppression of their consumers in exchange for permission to market their products.
American boycotts against firms that undermine Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests could stop or limit such actions. Although the Asia-Pacific region is becoming an increasingly large source of revenue for many industries, the established European and American markets still often carry significantly more influence than those in mainland China. Buyers in the U.S. and other liberal democracies wishing to support the Hong Kong movement should consider using their significant leverage to prevent the spread of Chinese censorship and oppression. The fight for democracy is no longer confined to small parts of China. As one protester’s sign put it, “Today Hong Kong, tomorrow the world.”