December 18, 2022
From a Twitter thread I wrote on June 2, 2021.
1. As with the NBA/Hong Kong kerfuffle in 2019, John Cena’s apology to Chinese fans over Taiwan has sparked a new round of anxiety over US businesses “kowtowing to China”. I have some thoughts (thread).
2. The concern often articulated involves the Chinese government/party explicitly twisting the arms of anyone who wants to do business there, essentially imposing its own censorship over what is said about China not only at home, but abroad.
3. There are certainly some elements of this at work. The Chinese government DOES want to control the global narrative about China, and uses carrots and sticks to do this. Pulling the plug on NBA broadcasts, for instance, was a form of official intimidation.
4. On the other hand, there is also a more bottom-up phenomenon where consumers in a given country have certain sensibilities – cultural or political – that anyone trying to sell to those consumers is going to want to avoid upsetting.
5. This is hardly unique to China. All over the world – including in the US – companies try to navigate various hot-button political issues to avoid offending customers, and making themselves a lightning rod for criticism.
6. Now there are two counterarguments to this. This first, more broadly, is that while businesses legitimately seek to avoid causing offense, there are ethical lines that shouldn’t be crossed. And that’s a very real concern, even if the public sentiment is authentic.
7. An example might be a national hotel chain navigating segregation in the Jim Crow South. At some point, by accommodating public sentiment, you become complicit in an injustice. The customer is not always right, and you have decide what you are willing to do about that.
8. The second counterargument is that public opinion – consumer sensibilities – in China are heavily influenced by government propaganda. People may passionately believe something because they’ve been encouraged to do so, or preventing from hearing other points of view.
9. There’s certainly a lot of truth to this, but we shouldn’t infantilize people in China either. In my experience in China, effective propaganda often *plays to* prevailing public sentiment at least as much as it shapes that sentiment.
10. For instance, domestic propaganda portraying protesters in Hong Kong as spoiled troublemakers gained purchase in mainland China because, fairly or not, it played to existing resentments that predisposed many mainlanders to see Hong Kong people in exactly that light.
11. The CCP doesn’t have to invent an injured sense of nationalism in China, and desire for national unity and strength. History has generated that. The Party stokes, plays to it, and exploits it, yes, but it’s a sensitivity that would exist anyway.
12. And while it’s fair to say that many people in China live in a kind of information bubble, we’re becoming keenly aware the same is true of many people in the US – not due to government censorship, but self-selected viewing habits and a desire for self-affirmation.
13. None of what I’m saying is meant to provide apologetics for the apologetics. It’s just to observe that there’s a spectrum here, from understandable business sensitivity to not pissing off customers, to more craven bowing to political pressure and/or unethical practices.
14. The reality is that, yes, there is a cost to a Hollywood studio, among Chinese movie-goers, of portraying China as the villain, with or without the CCP breathing down your neck – just as certain portrayals of Americans might damage a movie with an American audience.
15. But there’s an ethical line that can be crossed, where any critical portrayal of Chinese realities becomes forbidden, or China’s government works to directly influence these decisions. That is indeed deeply problematic.
16. But there’s the opposite extreme, where any business decision that seeks to navigate sensitivities that are widespread among the Chinese public is seen as inherently corrupt, treasonous, and unethical. Which is how I increasingly see it portrayed.