If ESPN thought shutting down on-air discussion about China and Hong Kong would please its Chinese master and protect the commercial interests of itself and its corporate parent Disney, it’s dead wrong. What China wants is not simply to police a few words on social media or on air. It wants to control American culture, period.
American culture’s global dominance and influence has long been the envy of the Chinese authorities. People around the world may not all like America’s policies, but most seem to have an insatiable appetite for McDonald’s, Taylor Swift, the NBA, and Hollywood movies, regardless of race, ethnicity, and cultural backgrounds.
Chinese leaders closely studied America’s ascent to a global superpower, and they believe America’s cultural influence is a key ingredient to the country’s success. China wants to emulate America’s success, albeit with Chinese characteristics. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao said, “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture.”
Current Chinese President Xi’s “China dream” is not only about expanding China’s economic and military influence globally, but also about cultural dominance — influencing and shaping other countries and their citizens’ views about China, and pushing a widespread acceptance of the Chinese political and economic model.
China Is Spending Big on ‘Soft Power’
Since coming to power, Xi has doubled down on investing in China’s soft power, “a measure of a country’s international attractiveness and its ability to influence other countries and publics.” China has built hundreds of Confucius Institutes around the world and puts national resources behind its vast domestic entertainment industry, hoping it will produce exportable content that gives “a good Chinese narrative and better communicate[s] China’s messages to the world” (Xi Jinping, 2014).
So far, China’s massive soft power investment has produced mixed results at best. Confucius Institutes are drawing a global backlash, especially in Western democracies. Dozens of them in the United States and Australia have been closed due to rising concerns that these institutes have engaged in “direct intervention, or pre-emptive self-censorship” in order to silence “important political and human rights issues.”
On the entertainment front, while Chinese movies such as action-packed “Wolf Warrior II” (which is set in Africa and depicts Americans as villains) generated mega ticket sales inside China, it bombed internationally. Here’s a rude awaking for Beijing: Cultural content created under government directive is boring, unappealing, and doesn’t win over a global audience.
If Beijing wants to exert cultural influence, China must become a free society and let Chinese people express themselves freely and creatively. This is obviously something Beijing isn’t willing to do because it regards granting political freedom to Chinese people as the means to the end of its dictatorial rule.
However, it didn’t take long for Beijing to discover that, rather than creating content of its own, it could easily get its propaganda delivered by using money to coerce Western companies to do its bidding, which is much more effective.
The West Is Doing China’s Bidding
We have seen Marriott fire an hourly employee in Omaha, Nebraska, for liking a tweet a Tibetan group posted. The three biggest U.S. airlines — American Airlines, United, and Delta — bowed to China’s demand and changed their websites to list Taiwan as part of China despite the fact that Taiwan has been self-ruling since 1940 and is under a completely different political and economic system than mainland China.
Most recently, Apple pulled a popular app, HKmap.live, from the App Store because Hong Kong protesters have been relying on it to track police activity on the streets and to avoid trouble spots. Apple deemed such usage of the app “illegal.” The company revised its decision and brought the app back a day later after widespread outcry. Yet right after this incident, Hong Kong users noticed that Apple had removed the Taiwanese flag from its emoji keyboard. Then the NBA issued an apology for one simple tweet showing support for Hong Kong protesters by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey.
Of course, Hollywood is the worst. It has bent its knees to its Chinese authoritarian master without even being asked. Every studio engages in self-censorship. In a recent example, fans quickly pointed out that both Japanese and Taiwan flags were removed from Maverick’s jacket in “Top Gun 2.”
American companies that kowtowed to Chinese authorities said they didn’t want their words or products to hurt Chinese people’s feelings. Someone needs to educate them that the online “backlash” these companies received after each incident was not necessarily the result of popular opinion from Chinese people.
Many of the “backlashes” Western companies receive come from an online Chinese group referred to as “Wumao,” Chinese users who are on the government’s payroll to support the government’s policies and messaging. They are paid to actively troll on any online platform, domestic or abroad.
Whenever the Chinese government wants to police a foreigner’s or a foreign company’s speech and behavior, “Wumao” is deployed to flood the person or company’s site and social media with condemning posts. These paid trolls do not represent thoughts and preferences of the majority of ordinary Chinese citizens because many ordinary citizens don’t even have access to Western social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter because China has banned these platforms.
Of course, the real reason behind Hollywood, Apple, the NBA, and ESPN’s cowardliness is profit — they don’t want to be shut out of the supposedly lucrative Chinese market. They should know that Chinese people love American products and sports teams not because the Chinese government told them to, but because American products and teams are the best in the world, and who doesn’t like the best? Therefore, Chinese people won’t stop buying American products or watching American sports simply because the government suddenly orders them not to.
America Must Rise Above China’s Thought Control
The reason America has the best products and sport teams is not because we are a rich and powerful nation (keep in mind, China is rich and powerful too), but because Americans live in a free country and enjoy freedom of expression. We are free to be as creative and as productive as we see fit. It’s this freedom that enables talented Americans to create music, characters, products, and sports teams with universal appeal that transcends cultures.
American companies have more power on their side as long as they have superior products. Using the NBA for example, NBA games are wildly popular in China. Chinese authorities could punish an individual team by cutting sponsorship and canceling a few games, but they won’t stop broadcasting all NBA games. Should they do so, Chinese fans will complain, not about the NBA but about the Chinese government. The Chinese government values social stability more than anything. The last thing they would do is shut down popular games and cause social unrest.
Also, keep in mind that many Chinese companies, including the NBA’s digital sponsor Tencent, are living off the NBA’s content. Cutting the NBA will hurt these Chinese companies’ bottom line too. Had the NBA sent a strong message defending free speech rather than an embarrassing apology, and had it been willing to walk away if China kept bullying one of its teams, China may have had to think twice about whether losing all NBA content over a tweet was worth it.
Rather than bowing down to Chinese authorities’ thought control, American companies ought to focus on how to continue to create the best products. “If you build it, they will come!” If we let the Chinese government set limits on what we can say or do, if we give up our freedom for a short-term financial gain, we will lose our ability to create the best products.
When our products are no longer the best, China can have its market wide open, and we will still lose market share and customers. This is why China may want to control our culture, our hearts, and our minds, but American people and American companies shouldn’t let them.