Now, there’s an effort in Congress to protect Americans’ free speech from Chinese censorship inside the United States. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation meant to prevent companies from punishing employees who speak out against China or any other foreign government that seeks to use economic weapons to enforce political loyalty.
“Foreign adversaries think they can bully American entities into silencing their workers. But the First Amendment doesn’t contain an asterisk. If you censor our basketball courts, we’ll see you in the courtroom,” Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.), the bill’s main sponsor, told me.
Called the Preventing Foreign Censorship in America Act, the legislation is clearly aimed at Beijing, though it isn’t limited to China. It would prohibit any companies operating in the United States from firing or retaliating against employees based on their “China-related” speech. That can include topics such as Hong Kong, the Uighurs or any of the Chinese government’s human rights violations.
After Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet expressing support for Hong Kong protesters last October, the Chinese government took millions of dollars of business away from the NBA and the Rockets — and the NBA pressured Morey to apologize. But that’s hardly the first example of Beijing telling U.S. companies to tell their employees to shut up.
In 2018, China severely punished Marriott after an employee in Omaha “liked” a pro-Tibet tweet. The hotel giant profusely apologized and fired the employee. Versace, Coach and Givenchy all apologized for a T-shirt that showed Hong Kong on a map not sanctioned by Beijing. Mercedes-Benz apologized to the Chinese government for quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post.
Blizzard Entertainment banned a Hong Kong-based gamer for expressing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and then apologized for that after receiving domestic criticism. Each of these companies is dependent on the Chinese market. They and hundreds of other firms are vulnerable to Beijing’s expanding effort to control the public discussion of China in open societies.
“The Chinese Communist Party is not content to exercise totalitarian control within its borders,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a co-sponsor of the bill. “Increasingly, it is seeking to control freedom of thought and expression throughout the free world by pressuring foreign companies to punish or censor their employees who speak out on topics deemed objectionable by Beijing. This has to stop.”
The bill seeks to protect workers from retaliation by prohibiting employment contracts that force employees to stay silent on sensitive matters, creating enforcement mechanisms that victims could use to defend themselves and requiring the federal government to report on companies that give in to pressure from authoritarian regimes.
“As long as you’re an American or on American soil, you should have the right to free speech. Congress will not stand idly by as China seeks to export its censorship abroad,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told me. “The United States will remain the land of the free.”
While this effort is certainly in response to China’s recent actions (including its move against the NBA), there’s a larger issue at stake. China has been setting an example that other authoritarian regimes will surely follow. Companies can’t be left to fend for themselves. Our government and society must make clear we are not going to stand for it.