The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion American businesses have the power to change China’s behavior. Time to step up.

A Uighur child plays in the courtyard of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region, in 2018. (Andy Wong/AP)
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By the time someone gets to be chief executive of a successful firm, they have generally been trained out of saying anything surprising in public. So I was positively astonished Monday when I saw Patrick Collison, the CEO of payments firm Stripe, tweet that “As a US business (and tech) community I think we should be significantly clearer about our horror at, and opposition to, the atrocities being committed by the Chinese government against its own people.”

On first read, that sentiment might seem banal. Of course we should clearly oppose China’s intensifying political repression. But it is easier to list American business leaders who have cravenly excused the inexcusable than to name those such as Collison, who have been brave enough to state the obvious. When it comes to China’s human rights abuses, the position of the American business community is prone.

China has just passed a national security law for Hong Kong that has essentially ended any hope of liberal democracy there. The Associated Press reports that the Chinese government has added forced abortion and mandatory birth control to the mass surveillance, concentration camps and family separations that it has already inflicted on its Uighur community. This is inching close to attempted genocide, and it is what inspired Collison’s tweet.

There’s a legitimate argument that businesses should be loath to take political stands — don’t they have enough to do, just making products and selling them? But that defense is hard to maintain as my inbox overflows with messages from companies that want to be sure I know about their latest initiatives to fight systemic racism and police brutality. These are worthy causes, but embracing politics looks more convenient than moral if your principles vanish at the first sign that they might cost you something. And that’s particularly true since the U.S. business community is probably the group with the most power to actually change China’s behavior.

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Ali Wyne of the Atlantic Council recently told me that corporate pressure would likely be a “more potent source of medium- to long-term pressure on China to change its human rights behavior than … political admonishments from the U.S. government.” Condemning U.S. racism, however, is costless, while standing up to China risks corporate investments in cheap Chinese manufacturing, or companies’ access to China’s 1.4 billion consumers. So it takes a leader like Collison, who does only limited business with China, to say what has to be said.

It is not an accident, Collison told me, that Stripe has limited investment in China. It was a deliberate choice, because of both the moral and economic costs of doing business within an unfree state. But most CEOs decided that the benefits — among them the vast labor pool and even vaster consumer market — outweighed those costs.

Ten years ago, it was easy to believe that those moral costs would soon dissipate. Trade would expose China to liberal democratic ideas, and as they got richer, they would get more free. It’s still possible that that happy vision will come true, but if so, that future seems a long way off.

Instead, it seems that China, having read the same arguments about the liberalizing effect of trade, is cracking down to ensure that we don’t export our democratic values. And so, we risk importing their despotic ones. Hollywood trims its major releases to meet the demands of Chinese government censors; airlines change their maps to erase Taiwan; U.S. business leaders, even its athletic stars, suddenly become tongue-tied about the value of freedom.

“It must be possible,” Collison tells me, “to acknowledge the basic facts — for example, that concentration camps and forced sterilization programs are reprehensible evils. If it becomes de facto unacceptable to do so, as part of some kind of self-perpetuating silence, it really seems to me that that’s a positive feedback loop that we should hurry to break.”

That’s not something that one leader can do alone; it’s more likely to take all of them. “China does need U.S. markets and U.S. companies in aggregate. They can’t ban everyone and there can be safety in numbers,” Collison says. It’s possible, of course, that the Chinese might decide to give up U.S. markets rather than liberalize, as they gave up Hong Kong’s usefulness as a financial hub. But if we can make a difference, we should find out.

Despite Collison’s example, most CEOs probably won’t take that risk on their own; they will be too afraid of being undercut by less scrupulous competitors who retain their access to China’s markets and manufacturing prowess. So on this Fourth of July, it falls to the American public to take the same stand for liberty, equality and justice abroad that we recently have at home. We must force U.S. businesses to state, loudly and without equivocation, that all people have certain inalienable rights, even if they live in China, and that defending those rights is worth our lives, our sacred honor and, yes, even our fortunes.

Read more:

George F. Will: China extends its reign of random fear

Ann Telnaes: The promise and reality of Hong Kong freedom, in cartoons

The Post’s View: China has just broken its solemn promise to Hong Kong

Richard Fontaine and Ely Ratner: The U.S.-China confrontation is not another Cold War. It’s something new.

Fareed Zakaria: China has been bungling its post-coronavirus foreign policy

Charles Dunst: Welcome to China’s new interventionist foreign policy