Beijing is not content to stop stifling free speech at the water’s edge. Western companies and institutions must put liberty before profits.
In late September, the businessman Bill Browder received an unusual alert from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office. Browder, an activist who champions sanctions against government officials complicit in human rights abuses in Russia and around the world, was warned not to travel to countries that honor extradition treaties with Hong Kong. The places he was warded off from included democracies such as South Africa and Portugal. British officials told the activist that, under the terms of a 2020 Hong Kong law, Browder could risk arrest, extradition, trial, and even punishment by the Chinese regime. Browder’s ostensible crime in such a scenario would be his public call for Britain to push back against human rights abuses in Hong Kong.
The ominous warning to Browder comes amid a quickening pattern of Chinese influence over free speech in the West. Two LinkedIn users recently reported that their accounts were disabled by the Microsoft-owned platform, apparently because they spotlighted work on human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. After coming under pressure from rights groups, LinkedIn announced it would close down its service on the mainland due to concerns over free expression, offering Chinese users a stripped-down version of the networking site without social media features. Just this week Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter’s outspoken support for a free Tibet prompted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to pull the team’s games from Chinese television.
In September, the Lithuanian government advised its officials to stop using Chinese-manufactured phones after discovering they were pre-programmed to censor 449 words or phrases considered objectionable by Beijing. That same week it was revealed that community newspapers in Australia serving Chinese speakers were printing censored stories. News articles sent to China for verbatim translation were being quietly scrubbed of criticism of Beijing.
As the United States and its allies confront the challenge of rising global authoritarianism, they must come to grips with one of its most insidious dimensions: the growing reach of the world’s most powerful autocracy deep inside Western societies. China’s global rise depends upon the world’s readiness to do business with it. That has put a premium on its international reputation. Increasingly, therefore, the CCP sees its continued reign as dependent not only on its long-standing practice of severely restricting speech inside China but also on dictating global narratives about China. Its rulers also fear that critiques that germinate abroad could seep through cracks in the Great Firewall and foster domestic instability.
China is now flexing its powers to impose censorship, of hard and soft varieties, beyond its own borders. The new Hong Kong national security law, the basis for Britain’s admonition to Browder, provides for the indictment of anyone, anywhere, for speech seen as inimical to Chinese security interests. China’s diktats affect sports, Hollywood, the publishing world, media and journalism outlets, higher education, tech and social media companies, and more.
As Chinese interest in American basketball has skyrocketed in recent years, the industry has come under pressure to put Beijing’s sensibilities ahead of freedom of speech. Two years ago when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong, he was forced to apologize. When the National Basketball Association deemed his comments “regrettable” the groveling triggered bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill. As of this writing, the NBA has been silent in response to Kanter’s criticism of rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang and it’s unclear whether and when Celtics games may reappear on the Chinese streaming platform Tencent.
Hollywood filmmakers know well that access to the world’s largest film market is determined by Beijing authorities which, under the terms of the country’s 2016 Film Industry Promotion Law, favor portrayals that “transmit the glorious Chinese culture or promote core socialist values.”
Directors and actors associated with such films as Seven Years in Tibet that depict China unfavorably have been frozen out professionally and, in some cases, have resorted to obsequious apologies to revive their careers. By contrast, action films with Chinese heroes and plotlines that flatter Beijing have won privileged slots for broad theatrical release, making as much as hundreds of millions of dollars on the mainland. The result is an acquiescent, anticipatory, even subconscious form of self-censorship whereby U.S. filmmakers have internalized Chinese taboos and rewards as integral to their success.
With China now, by some measures, the world’s largest book market, Western publishers and booksellers are facing growing incentives to suppress critical narratives and instead feature titles that bootlick Beijing. When Germany’s Thalia bookstore chain suddenly gave prominent shelf space to displaying the writings of Chinese President Xi Jinping, it turned out a German subsidiary of the CCP’s global publishing arm had curated the promotion. There are other documented instances of publishers in Australia, England, and Germany coming under direct pressure from the CCP or engaging in anticipatory self-censorship to appease Beijing.
Journalists have seen this up close as well. In 2020, China expelled the largest number of foreign journalists since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, including many from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. That left just several dozen American reporters inside China, a group that has been subject to harassment, visa denials, surveillance, and severe access restrictions. Last year it was revealed that Bloomberg, the parent company of Bloomberg News, went to great lengths to muzzle journalists and their families regarding the company’s efforts to suppress reporting on Chinese government corruption…..
Continue reading this article, published October 26, 2021 at Foreign Policy – the Global Magazine of News and Ideas.
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