The recent controversy between China and the NBA over the Houston Rockets’ general manager supporting anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong in a tweet sparked a welcome conversation in the United States: To what extent are Americans willing to sell out their political values for access to the lucrative Chinese market?
Still under-appreciated, however, is the full significance of the Chinese policy that gave rise to this specific squabble. China is committed to controlling the political discourse in other countries as a means of furthering the objectives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This involves extending the Orwellianism for which the CCP is infamous into foreign societies, including liberal democracies.
In Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a totalitarian government forces its people to accept a propagandized worldview that glorifies the ruling political party, vilifies its adversaries and denies the existence of the party’s obvious failures. As China gains economic leverage abroad through its massive purchasing power, Beijing is vigorously implementing what could be called forward-deployed neo-Orwellianism.
Beijing seeks to cultivate the outside world’s support by enlarging China’s influence over the making of international rules and norms; ensuring maximum energy and food security for China; maintaining and gaining Chinese opportunities to acquire foreign technology through partnerships, purchase or theft; paving the way to Chinese domination of targeted industrial sectors; and securing international acceptance of Chinese preferences on strategic issues, including Chinese ownership of disputed territory and Chinese veto power over certain self-defense policies of regional countries.
The realization of Beijing’s objectives becomes more likely if the international community empowers the CCP by acquiescing to China’s influence over the political discourse outside of China.
The Chinese government exports its Orwellian policy through the Chinese media, co-opted Chinese businesspeople and scholars, diplomats and front organizations supervised by the United Front Work Department. There are two principal modes of operation: 1) bribing people who hold positions of influence in foreign countries; and establishing profitable relationships with foreign companies and then using the threatened or actual cutoff of Chinese business to force these companies to adopt Beijing’s positions on political issues.
University campuses worldwide have struggled for years with the problem of compromising their academic ideals in order to keep riding the gravy train of Chinese-sourced funding. Several politicians in Western countries have been caught or credibly suspected of taking Chinese bribes. Chinese money affects the content of Hollywood movies.
The new movie “Abominable” includes a Chinese map drawn to include the South China Sea as Chinese territory. In the films “2012” and “Gravity,” Chinese government agencies are portrayed as heroic. The Marvel film “Doctor Strange’ changed an important character from Tibetan to Celtic due to Chinese sensitivities. The 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” changed the invading enemies from Chinese to North Koreans.
For Beijing, all issues are linkable with politics, no form of influence is off-limits as a means of leverage, and no matter is too small for the Chinese government to overlook. A recent example was the University of Rochester’s plan to send a group of student musicians to perform in China. Beijing denied visas to three of the student musicians because they are South Korean nationals, subject to a Chinese ban on South Korean artists since 2016 to punish South Korea for installing a U.S.-made missile-defense system to protect itself from North Korea.
Foreign businesses and governments might conclude that keeping quiet about Xinjiang or Hong Kong, being careful not to imply that Taiwan is a country, shunning the Dalai Lama and avoiding Winnie the Pooh jokes is a small price to pay to continue making money from China. NBA superstar LeBron James and several large Western corporations have taken this position.
The price of such a compromise, however, is higher than what is immediately visible in the short term.
This is at least partly an ideological contest. During the past two years Chinese president Xi Jinping has increasingly emphasized the idea of China as a model political system for other governments to emulate. The key features of that model are one-party dictatorship, suppression of dissent, a strong and intrusive internal security apparatus, and a mercantilist and nationalism-driven foreign policy.
In contrast, the countries that uphold the liberal regional order see their prosperity and security safeguarded by norms that promote respect for international law, openness and reciprocity in trade, peaceful settlement of disputes, and the upholding of basic civil and political rights. Surrendering to Chinese attempts to control political debate outside of China indirectly supports the Chinese model over the liberal model.
Societies that allow China to regulate political discourse condition themselves to accept some of the main points of Chinese propaganda: That the CCP stands for only good things, that a strong China is all opportunity and no threat, that outsiders should strive for a good relationship with China at all costs and that foreigners should accommodate Beijing’s positions on strategic issues.
Allowing China to enforce censorship in countries that normally enjoy free political discussion moves us closer to a world in which authoritarian governments would face no negative international consequences for large-scale atrocities against their own people.
Taking Chinese money to stay silent over Chinese outrages against fairness and justice is a victory for cynicism. It makes outsiders complicit in the defeat of their own values and damage to their own political systems.
Finally, it fails to call out the Chinese government for its hypocrisy. Beijing claims to honor the principle of “non-interference” and is quick to allege that discontent within China is the result of meddling by Western governments.
Governments in liberal democratic countries cannot simply order their private sector to stop selling their political birthright for a mess of Chinese pottage. Societies that enjoy civil liberties must realize the threat posed by the corrupting influence of a China that offers economic opportunity as the bait that obscures the cruelly sharp end of an iron hook.
In the Rochester University music school case, the school’s dean initially planned to cave in to China by travelling without the South Korean students, but later cancelled the trip under pressure from the school’s students, alumni and the public. Although difficult, this is the proper response, one that people in free countries who deal with China will need to repeat countless times in the foreseeable future.
• Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center.