Economy & Business

By Bending the Knee to China, Corporate America Endangers Democracy

Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the China Development Forum in Beijing, March 23, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
If Hong Kong teenagers and cartoon characters are all there is between us and an authoritarian regime, we are in big trouble.

Karl Marx once said, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” While everything else he said was a load of crap, corporate America’s recent disgusting behavior seems to prove Marx might be right on this one.

Early last week, we learned Apple pulled a popular app, HK Map Live, from the App Store. Hong Kong protesters have been relying on this app to track police activity on the streets of Hong Kong and to avoid trouble spots. The app also helps bystanders plan their routes to their daily lives without getting caught up in increasingly violent confrontations between the police and protesters. Given the fact that Hong Kong police shot an 18-year-old protester on October 1, China’s National Day, this app could be life-saving for many.

Yet Apple decided to pull the app right after one of the bloodiest clashes between the Hong Kong police and protestors. The company informed the app developer that “Your app contains content — or facilitates, enables, and encourages an activity — that is not legal. . . . Specifically, the app allowed users to evade law enforcement.”

It’s hard to believe this is the same Apple whose most iconic ad was a rebel throwing a hammer at the image of a “Big Brother,” or the same company that fought against the FBI’s request to build a backdoor access to an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists.

After igniting widespread outcry, Apple revised its decision and brought the HK Map Live app back a day later. But this wasn’t the first time and certainly won’t be the last time Apple capitulates to the Chinese authoritarian regime. Apple is too far down this path: It agreed to China’s security checks, moved local user data onto China-based servers, and disabled a news app to appease Chinese censors. Apple CEO Tim Cook talks up privacy, consumer rights, and democracy in the U.S. when it is safe to take a high moral ground, but he seems to see nothing immoral in aiding Apple’s anti-democracy master in China all for profit and market access.

Apple isn’t alone in trading morality for money. It has plenty of company. Last Friday, right after the Apple reversal, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wrote a simple tweet showing support for Hong Kong protesters, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” His simple tweet drew criticism from the Chinese Consulate in Houston and the Chinese Basketball Association chaired by Yao Ming, who earned fame and fortune by playing for the Rockets. A number of Chinese companies cut economic ties with the Rockets immediately.

Seeing fading dollar signs, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta quickly and publicly rebuked Morey for his tweet. Morey speedily apologized, and some speculated it was because his job was on the line. Then the NBA issued its own apology/statements in Chinese and English, with the Chinese version worded much more harshly than the English one, saying it is “extremely disappointed in Morey’s inappropriate statement.” Since when has expressing support for democracy been inappropriate?

While bullying from the Chinese side shouldn’t be surprising, the actions taken and words spoken by the Rockets’ owner and the NBA are simply shameful. The NBA is one of the least diverse organizations in corporate America. Others have pointed out that the NBA remained silent (as it should ) and showed little concern over the feelings of American fans when some coaches and a number of players were critical of President Trump and his supporters. But the league has no problem sucking up to an actual brutal regime that has put more than a million Muslims in internment camps.

By making such a shameful statement, the NBA did something unthinkable nowadays: It united Republicans and Democrats in this highly polarized political environment. Republican senators Ben Sasse, Ted Cruz, and Tim Scott, as well as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer and a couple of Democratic congressmen all issued statements criticizing the NBA for not supporting pro-democracy Hong Kongers and letting Americans be bullied by a Communist regime.

But as a China watcher tweeted: “It’s not about the NBA. It’s about all the other foreign companies with significant investments in China who are right now sending out frantic company-wide emails to make sure no one posts supporting Hong Kong.” So there you go. China doesn’t even have to waste any money setting up covert operations in the U.S. to influence Americans. Corporate America is doing China’s bidding voluntarily. They don’t want to upset Chinese authorities and end up losing access to the supposedly lucrative great China market.

Americans should have seen this coming. Last year, Marriott fired an hourly employee in Omaha for liking a tweet posted by a Tibetan group. Google chose not to help American soldiers by declining to do artificial-intelligence work with the Department of Defense, but it was eager to provide a censored version of its search engine in China. In addition, Google joined IBM to fund an organization that “is working with a company that is helping China’s authoritarian government conduct mass surveillance against its citizens,” according to The Intercept.

Corporate America bent its knee for the obvious profit motive, but what it is doing is dangerous.

These corporations put their own long-term survival in danger. Let’s take a look at Apple. Its capitulations to Chinese authorities paid off, initially. For a few quarters, sales in China accounted for more than half of the company’s growth. But then the Chinese government shut down the iBooks Store and iTunes Movies and rejected Apple’s right to trademark the name “iPhone” in China. In the meantime, the Chinese government threw its resources behind supporting domestic brands such as Huawei and Xiaomi to compete against Apple. Apple has been losing market share and sales in China. As of the first quarter of 2019, Apple’s iPhone sales in China were down 30 percent, and market share in China was only 7.4 percent, down from 10.2 percent last year. Karl Marx may be right after all, that corporations such as Apple are selling the ropes to a Communist regime that is ready to hang them.

But worse yet, what these companies did and are still doing is put freedom-loving people in China in danger by enabling the Chinese government to easily track, identitfy, and arrest dissidents. These organizations also put our own democracy in danger by suppressing freedom of expression of our own citizens. What’s the future of our republic if Americans have to check with China first before they say anything in their own homeland?

Of course, not everyone gives a damn of what may offend Chinese authorities. This week, Chinese censors quickly deleted every clip, episode, and online discussion of South Park from Chinese internets after the most recent episode criticized Hollywood’s sucking up to Chinese censors. The creators of South Park “apologized” in typical South Park style, by mocking Chinese censors even more. Good for them. But if Hong Kong teenagers and cartoon characters are all there is between us and an authoritarian regime that is bent on imposing control on all of us, we are in big trouble.

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Helen Raleigh is the owner of Red Meadow Advisors, LLC, a senior contributor to the Federalist, and the author of Confucius Never Said.

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