According to the Financial Times, the Instagram post by Undercover, the studio of Japanese designer Jun Takahashi, circulated across Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, despite Beijing’s infamous Great Firewall. As social media posts of Chinese citizens disavowing their Nike sneakers spread across the Internet, Undercover deleted the post and defended itself by calling it an “individual opinion.” Yet Nike pulled the new shoe line anyway.
The company is clearly sensitive to political criticism from any quarter: It also yanked new sneakers featuring Betsy Ross’s American flag after Colin Kaepernick, who starred in one of its ad campaigns after protesting during the national anthem at National Football League games, reportedly objected to them. But it is one thing to accommodate a former NFL quarterback and another to bow to an authoritarian government. Nike’s appeasement of China fits into a larger and more dangerous pattern of kowtowing by Western companies to Beijing’s demands for censorship.
Since January of last year, dozens of international companies, including Marriott, Delta Air Lines and Zara, either apologized for or removed references suggesting that Hong Kong, Taiwan or other controversial areas were not part of China on their websites or merchandise. Air Canada now lists Taiwan under a drop-down menu for destinations in China on its global website. German luxury-car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz offended the regime by quoting the Dalai Lama in an Instagram post; the company not only took the post down but also subsequently apologized for it.
For years, the West believed that foreign economic investment and the exchange of ideas that came with it would push China away from isolationism and toward democracy and the rule of law. Yet, so far, China has successfully leveraged its massive and increasingly wealthy consumer base to accomplish the opposite — forcing Western firms to curb free speech.
Foreign companies need to tread carefully. They should not abet China’s crusade against freedom of expression and democratic values. The more they accept and legitimize Beijing’s censorship, the more complicit they are in cementing its authoritarian grip.