China's Culture Creep

China is beginning to have a visible impact on American culture, and it’s something that we should be thinking about. Over the past three weeks we have seen three incidents of U.S. companies being threatened or banned from China. In two of those scenarios, the companies quickly caved to Chinese demands. 

Two weeks ago, it was coercion of the NBA when Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets, had posted a Tweet supporting Hong Kong. 

Last week China caused a major shakeup in the Hearthstone online gaming community. Ng (ing) Wai Chung, aka Blitzchung, pulled off his Hong Kong-protester-style mask and said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!” during an interview on Hearthstone Taiwan’s official channel. Hearthstone owner Blizzard Entertainment responded by stripping the player of his status and financial winnings [1].

South Park was also a casualty when their series was banned and scrubbed from the internet in China due to an episode titled “Band in China.” Creators Trey Stone and Matt Parker responded with mock-apology and a follow-up episode that further challenged Chinese censorship.

These instances are a few of many. China has demanded U.S. airlines remove any references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau as countries independent from China [2]. They forced the CEO of Marriott Hotels to repeat the Communist Party of China’s talking points [3], made Apple censor the Taiwanese flag from its keyboard for users in Hong Kong and Macau [4], and have been working with Google to develop a censored search engine for China [5].  The list of companies that have bowed to China’s demands is long

China’s uncompromising policy forces companies to agree to protect their investments. We can imagine the intensity and frequency of their demands will increase as the Hong Kong protests continue. Every corporate submission weakens people demanding a participatory government. 

It’s another instance of corporations valuing profits over people. But the impacts of bowing to China go beyond business, it’s an encroachment on our consciousness. It also calls into question if we’re viewing this trend with appropriate foresight. 

Corporate Consciousness 

It’s no secret that China is the rising economic power of the world, and U.S. corporations want to capitalize on their emerging markets. But what is and is not acceptable for corporations in an age of global cultural instability? 

China’s practice of censorship is intrusive and all-encompassing. Citizens cannot criticize the government and operate under social credit scores determining rewards or punishments, the structure of which they had no say in. Dissidents have been abducted, never to be seen again. China also harvests the organs of its prison population without consent [6].  

China also provides a more robust suite of social protections than we do here in the United States. The government ensures healthcare, retirement pensions, housing, and education for its citizens. A guided economy translates into less economic instability, meaning more consistent employment for more people. Innovation is rewarded, but always under the confines of obedience to the state. 

The quality of material life would increase for many Americans under these expanded social protections. Progressives across the United States fight for some of these policies daily in our universe. But these protections are no substitution for the limitation of our transformative potential. As China’s economic influence continues to expand, so will their demands for conformity to their worldview.

Companies have no legal obligation to promote American virtues. Profitability matters. The rest is ancillary. It’s a long-accepted truth in corporate America, but one that is now contributing to the erosion of freedoms. Ignoring the issue any longer is a choice to move towards that direction.

Here we encounter a paradox—corporations thrive in the United States because there is comparatively little oversight for how they excel. Now their growth models contribute to the expansion of authoritarian culture. Our economics conflict with our ethics. If we believe that the global spread of China’s authoritarian culture is a threat, why do we allow American companies to be complicit?  

Culture is a sort of measurable consciousness. Its impact on each of us varies, but it’s there nonetheless. It shapes our ways of thinking, acting, and being. Regional culture distributions ensure that your global birth lottery determines more of your destiny than any amount of work ever could. 

Values shape our thoughts and actions, which develop into a collective culture. Every social institution reinforces specific preferences into our understanding of the world. Exploring what type of ideals we want to encode into our institutions is more important now than ever.  

Liberty and equality are byproducts of the Enlightenment [7] and have been foundational to the development of modern democracies. Today these values conflict with China’s ethos of loyalty to the collective above all. That’s where things become a little scary. The most significant opposition that China presents isn’t military conquest. It’s an economic, cultural, and political influence. 

That’s why a candid discussion about what is and is not acceptable corporate behavior in the present-day is so relevant. In bowing to Chinese demands, American companies declare to support the Chinese vision of global ethics. Thus, signaling that Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom is worth less than the potential profits of bending the knee.  

Progressive Solutions

Progressives seek cooperation to solve issues, locally and globally. That’s why the Hong Kong situation is so alarming. It’s not just the CCP who believes in the suppression of Hong Kong’s freedom, it’s the Chinese people [8]. If the mainland supports China’s treatment of Hong Kong, cooperative solutions may be challenging to achieve. For the United States to continue to be a global supporter of individual agency, we need to rethink our approaches.

One solution to Chinese demands on U.S. companies is a more democratized market economy. A national public discussion and debate about how the nation wants to support democracy around the world. Structured in a way that demands detailed planning and policy from participants and ends with a popular vote. We might consider thresholds to what is and is not acceptable. Striving to maintain the freedom of innovators while hindering multi-nationals from prioritizing their financial interests over the global well-being of large majorities of people. 

Market purists might argue against this restructuring of our economic arrangements, believing that any restrictions to American innovation will surely backfire and cause stagnation in our creative potential. This argument is self-defeating. If China dictates what American companies can and cannot do, then innovation will be stifled.   

If economic competition with China continues to be a zero-sum game, the purist is faced with a choice. A democratized market economy where the American public formulates standards of behavior for our corporations at a national and international level. Or a market economy beholden to a foreign power whose demands contradict our nation’s shared values and promise nothing in return.   

A progressive Congress and White House would explore the foreign policy of developing interlinking economies with our allies: a suite of international collaborative projects in infrastructure, economic arrangements, and legal safeguards to protect against dismantling without overwhelming public support. We begin a new era of global projects owned by the collective public. 

We begin with continental development projects with Mexico and Canada building networked green energy infrastructure, exporting our innovations to cooperative nations. Investment in automation and clean energy innovations in logistics technologies would dramatically reduce the costs of land, ocean, and air transport. Savings are reinvested in ensuring people displaced by the change have pathways to retraining and entry into the workforce alongside deeper social protections.

Diplomatic missions to emerging nations would also be a top priority. Our objective is to convince them to join the global cooperative and not to submit to the authoritarian monolith. To do that, the United States needs to concede power to allow prospering nations to have a voice at the table of a new global order. We’re not strengthening existing global capitalism, we’re reforming it into a cooperative model. It requires that Americans break free from the neoliberal model of capitalism through conquest.

New laws of property and contract should be established, breaking the most advanced methods of production away from a handful of tech elites and spreading it throughout the economy. They would tie finance to the real economy, reform our education institutions, and create a new constitution and a new bill of rights designed democratically from the ground up by the people, for the people. Something exciting and big enough will inspire a planetary movement towards a free and open society.

China’s culture creep may be inevitable, but our present economic arrangements only make it worse. Supporting Hong Kong’s struggle for independence requires us to reconsider corporate autonomy in the face of a humanitarian crisis. To do nothing is to abandon our responsibility to free and open societies around the globe. Something we would be wise not to take for granted in these uncertain times.

[1] Blizzard has removed Blitzchung from Grandmasters and banned him from competing in Hearthstone following his on-stream Hong Kong protest by Tom Matthiesen INVEN Global  

[2] China Threatens U.S. Airlines Over Taiwan References by James Palmer, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian Foreign Policy 

[3] How China forces American companies to do its political bidding By Josh Rogin Washington Post 

[4] Apple bows to China by censoring Taiwan flag emoji by Matthew Di Silva Yahoo Finance 

[5] US Companies Help Censor the Internet in China, Too by Tom Simonite Wired  

[6] Final Judge Report China Tribunal 

[7] Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice U.S. 

[8] Why Many in China Oppose Hong Kong’s Protests by Li Yuan 

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