That was quite the demonstration by the citizens of Hong Kong on Tuesday — half a million protesters, by some estimates, braving tropical downpours to tell the Politburo in Beijing that they wanted to choose their own leaders. Though China’s top officials had pledged to allow Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” when the British handed the colony over to China in 1997, a government white paper released three weeks ago stipulated that a committee controlled by supporters of the Chinese Communist Party would determine who could run in 2017 for the post of chief executive.
The predominantly young protesters would have none of it. They called for an open nomination system. They carried banners reading, “Say no to Communist China.”
Just the sort of thing you’d expect Western institutions based in Hong Kong to support, yes? Well, actually, if we’re talking about some major Western corporations, no.
The big four multinational accounting firms — Ernst & Young, KPMG, Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers — took out ads in three Hong Kong papers saying that they are “opposed” to the democracy movement and complaining that the demonstrations are a threat to the rule of law. As reported in the Financial Times, the four accounting firms warned that the protests could disrupt the stock exchange, banks and financial service firms, causing “inestimable losses in the economy.” If such displays continued, they cautioned, their clients might pull up stakes and relocate to a city where the business climate isn’t dampened by pro-democracy demonstrators.
For years, American businesses argued that bringing capitalism to China would transform that nation into a democracy. In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect: U.S. and other Western companies doing business in China have become defenders of authoritarianism. Of course, the lure of China for U.S. business was never the opportunity it posed for missionary work on behalf of democratic values; it was cheap labor, access to a huge market and high profit margins. That was certainly true for Apple and other corporations that offshored production to the factory cities in southern China, just across the border from Hong Kong. It was certainly true for Rupert Murdoch, who reportedly cooperated closely with government censors during a long but ultimately fruitless attempt to make inroads in the Chinese television market. Indeed, as Murdoch was successfully maneuvering to buy the Wall Street Journal, some of that paper’s China correspondents accused him of “sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy personal and political aims.”
If pressed, the big four accounting firms would undoubtedly affirm their support for capitalism and democracy. The firms’ global headquarters have disavowed any advance knowledge of the ads — but then again, none has condemned them. The firms’ egregious conduct in Hong Kong makes painfully clear their willingness to dump democracy the moment they think it may threaten their bottom line.
Happily, perhaps the canniest democracy advocate in all Hong Kong — Han Dongfang, founder and editor of the China Labor Bulletin — visited Washington a couple weeks ago. During the occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989, Han co-founded and became the spokesman for China’s first independent union since the Communists took power. Arrested by the regime, he spent 22 months in a prison populated almost entirely of people suffering from tuberculosis — a disease he contracted, and to which he lost a lung. He was able to come to the United States for medical treatment, but when he tried to return to China, the government expelled him to Hong Kong. There, he established the Bulletin, which, from afar, helps the thousands of Chinese workers who walk off the job for better wages and working conditions conduct their strikes, select their leaders and negotiate with their employers.
“The workplace was the historic foundation of democracy in 19th-century Europe,” Han told me after he’d delivered a talk at the Albert Shanker Institute. “Chinese democracy will begin in the workplace, too.”
The institute — full disclosure: I’m a member of its unpaid board — is a project initiated by the American Federation of Teachers. This union is much reviled by many U.S. business leaders, in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, who don’t think twice about offshoring jobs to China, where independent unions are illegal, even if strikes are irrepressible. U.S. labor has a long history of helping democracy activists like Han and Poland’s Lech Walesa. That’s more than can be said for some major players in corporate America, whose true feelings about democracy are seldom more apparent than when they go abroad to spread the worst kind of values our nation has to offer.