There aren’t enough synonyms for “cowardly” to capture the craven pusillanimity of America’s corporate capitalists who have abjectly prostrated themselves before Chinese government censors. Those spineless weaklings whose expense accounts tower over their atrophied consciences have shamed themselves and their country.
This week, the nation saw American sports fans removed from an event held on U.S. soil for daring to suggest that the people of Hong Kong ought to enjoy the same democratic freedoms that Americans do. The incident happened in Philadelphia — where those very freedoms were devised — at an exhibition game between the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and a team from the Chinese Basketball Association. This followed the National Basketball Association’s pathetic begging of forgiveness from Beijing after a tweet by the Houston Rockets’ general manager supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters infuriated the Chinese government. China is a lucrative market for the NBA; soon the Houston GM came crawling, too.
On Thursday, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, when asked about human rights in China, actually tried to suggest a moral equivalence between an admittedly less-than-perfect American system of government and a Communist regime that operates concentration camps, imprisons dissidents and violently cracks down on democratic protest.
But the NBA-wide genuflecting to China is just one disturbing example of a much larger problem as U.S. companies have wiped Taiwan off their maps, erased Tibetan characters from American films, and expelled or cut ties with anyone who dared suggest that democracy is better than China’s one-party rule, and that liberty is better than living in an authoritarian surveillance state. These corporate chicken-hearts include: Apple, American Airlines, Blizzard Entertainment, Coach, Delta Air Lines, Disney, ESPN, Gap, Marriott, Nike, Ray-Ban, Tiffany, Vans, and Viacom.
That’s only a partial list, but it does at least hint at the disgraceful scale of the rot. Can this really be "the land of the free and the home of the brave”?
The heirs of Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine, of Gettysburg and Antietam, of Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., of Anzio and Omaha Beach, are using their hard-won freedom to help China hide plain facts from public view: that the Chinese regime is authoritarian and abusive; that it oppresses Tibet and herds religious minorities into reeducation camps; that it is stamping out what remains of liberal institutions in Hong Kong and would like to do the same to the free and independent nation of Taiwan as soon as enough major powers agree to look the other way.
Those business “leaders” who have tacitly endorsed Chinese policy are too afraid of losing their access to China’s 1.4 billion consumers, or its marvelously cheap and efficient supply chains, to bother about any of that. And in fairness, they do have a duty to protect shareholders’ investments and to increase their value if possible, and therefore arguably have no moral obligation to stand up for liberty.
That may be a fundamental indictment of American capitalism, as many have suggested over the past few days. But one can never indict “markets” without implicating millions of co-conspirators: the shareholders and consumers who will keep buying the companies’ shoes and watching their movies and attending their games no matter how eagerly they parrot the Chinese Communist Party line.
The rich world is still a much more valuable market for these companies than even 1.4 billion consumers with low to moderate incomes. If the public had ever demanded that they stand up for liberty, they’d have quickly become champions of freedom. But we won’t, so they don’t.
Conservatives similarly have a point when they mock “woke capitalists” who take stands on America’s culture wars while ignoring the vast scale of Chinese human rights abuses. But those critics crying “hypocrisy” are also mostly lining up behind President Trump — that fan of dictators everywhere. Who responded to the Hong Kong protests by saying Beijing had acted “very responsibly” and “Hong Kong is a part of China, they’ll have to deal with that themselves.” If you call them on it, their reply is likely to echo the implicit message from those gutless companies: They have other priorities — in this case, winning the culture wars. In complaining about corporate hypocrisy while embracing their own double standard, they are, in other words, no better than the rest of us.
Much talk in recent days has focused on what the NBA fiasco reveals about capitalism, or about Chinese penetration of U.S. institutions, but the real revelation is about who we are. If there’s any hope, it’s that we’ve met the news with outrage, so we apparently want, and maybe even intend, to be better than that.
And if we do want to be that better nation, the one that believes in liberty and justice for all, then we’ll make one thing clear from now on: Companies can serve either the Chinese Communist Party or the American consumer, but never both.