Don’t trust corporations to liberalise China

From Nathan Attrill at Lowy Interpreter:

In a week which began with images of Xi Jinping waving at his own giant portrait in a military parade for the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) 70th anniversary, it ended in an even more surreal manner – with a cartoon Winnie the Pooh being strangled to death in a Chinese gulag. Ordinarily one might not see a connection between these two images, but in the PRC of the “new era”, there is increasingly little room for Western business, popular culture, or sport to engage with people in China on terms the Party does not mediate.

Pooh appears in a recent episode of the long-running satire South Park which accuses Hollywood of pandering to the tastes of Chinese censors for market access, threatening artistic integrity and freedom of expression. Such claims have been made before, but the issue has now exploded into the public consciousness helped along in the same week by a tweet from an official for the NBA’s Houston Rockets showing support for protestors in Hong Kong.

Authorities in China and some fans reacted with typical patriotic displeasure and fury. But now questions over what the NBA should do and say have reached the highest levels of US government, and in one incident getting rare bipartisan agreement.

But multinational corporations such as the NBA “offending the Chinese people” is not a new story, nor is it one that could not be survived with a bit of corporate kowtowing. What is different for the NBA is the timing and its product, a sporting touchstone for both sides of the Pacific in the emerging Sino-American “decoupling”.

These increasingly occurring corporate dramas are not about us. Chinese people are asked every day to choose between loyalty to the Party and something else. This time its American basketball, but at other moments it has been fashionable handbags or international airlines that had the audacity to imply Taiwan was a country. It doesn’t matter what the something is. What matters is the performative denouncements and stitching of this insult into the long tapestry of humiliation at the hands of foreigners which underpins the legitimacy of the Party’s continuing monopoly of power.

The Party is in an ideological conflict with Western liberal democracy whether we like it or not, or whether we call it a “cold war” or not. Ideological competition is back in Xi’s “New Era”, and at last more people are waking up to this fact. The China of World Trade Organisation accession days – when thorny political differences between two systems could be put aside for everyone to make money – are over. The inoffensively named “Document No. 9” published and circulated among top Party organisations in 2013 is explicit in characterising Western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, freedom of the press, and efforts to counter the Party’s narrative on Chinese history as potential threats to “split” China and bring about a “colour revolution”. According to the New York Times, this document “bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping”.

Chinese leaders feel sufficiently confident – or threatened – in their power that they believe they no longer must hide their capacities or bide their time, as Deng Xiaoping once advised. The time is now for the PRC to make the outside world choose what it values more – its ideology or its access to 800 million patriotic consumers. We in liberal societies are now the ones being asked to choose, and unfortunately we are demanding the wrong people do it on our behalf.

We are demanding multinational corporations to uphold, defend, and promote our values. That these organisations would not even think to trade free speech for market access should surprise no one. They are not structured to have a moral compass which guides decision-making – they look more like authoritarian institutions than democratic ones.

This is what makes them the weakest points for any engagement with China, because they base it on little more than economic transactions where Chinese people are defined as “consumers”, so we don’t have to deal with their politics. This is no longer going to work in a new era of greater political and ideological competition. Yet corporations are still the vanguard for our relations with the people of China when they are not promoters or defenders of liberal values – nor can they be, nor even should they be.

True advocacy for free speech in a world where China is increasingly more assertive must come from civil society and the culture it produces, which may need to challenge the core ideas of the Chinese Communist Party. Individuals must tweet what they want to, because support for liberal values will not come from relying on the NBA or Hollywood, who will continue to find the issue “complex” when it really is not. Expecting corporations to advocate for liberal values is not worth your time, and as South Park’s Stan Marsh puts it: “Anyone who would betray their ideals just to make money in China isn’t worth a lick of spit.”

Making it vital that civil society speaks out consistently and loudly.

David Llewellyn-Smith
Latest posts by David Llewellyn-Smith (see all)


  1. Agree wholeheartedly, but please tell how we as individuals can start to do this. I feel completely overpowered right now by the need to stand up for democracy in a time of massive surveillance and corruption in our own political and education systems!!!

    • Perhaps at least send some short emails to your state and Fed senators and reps. Make some noise. Make some comments on Facebook, etc. Awareness is a start, and gets conversation going.

        • We have Peter Dutton on one side a man who is using totalitarian tactics and using state secrets as an excuse to threaten the media and prevent the truth from the very citizens he serves.
          On the other hand we have Get up and the ABC attack on free speech whereby they promote a bland soulless world of no genders or humour, comics who must run their script past the authorities in case it goes against their agenda.

          • Lets face it, Dutton is a not so secret admirer of any totalitarian regime that controls its people down to their every word and even thought regardless of his complaints about China.
            Am in two minds as to whether I would prefer that they thow ‘speaking in tongues’ Morrison out and install Dutton (in order to get a massive backlash at the next election) or they keep SM so that Dutton cant consolodate the evil power he would as PM.
            An ex QLD cop who displays all the qualities of a low level thug copper and with a family business that ponces off the state is as low as it gets and on par with that piece of crap running the Philipines, ie he would give cops the right to shoot first and ask questions later if he could get away with it.
            At least get up and the ABC have the real needs of the people at heart.

      • “Make some comments on Facebook”

        Use Faceborg to enable free speech and stop surveillance and oppression?

    • Learn to shoot.

      Every 150-250 years, the ruling classes go off the rails, they find solidarity with oligarchs around the world that their own fellow citizens / subjects.

      Populations rise up, cut their heads off, and it all starts over again.

  2. Australian politicians aren’t interested in the public’s feelings regarding immigration. Why would they care about what the public thinks about China?

    • Nor have our whataboutist “Think tanks” been. Everything’s infiltrated by greed & power & Now, some are in danger of losing some so they start squawking & pointing…..

    • Mandatory voting keeps Lib/Lab entrenched. The uncaring masses will just vote for them. There is no core base to motivate, no radical edge party to come in and steal the spotlight. All edge parties must eventually deliver preferences to Lib/Lab anyway.

      • Without compulsory voting, the only people who would bother doing it are the rusted-ons and the radicals, and the former will outnumber the latter.

        The two party system would exist regardless of compulsory voting.

  3. Just in case people haven’t seen it yet:
    Kyle Bass sits down with retired Brigadier General Robert Spalding to discuss what’s really happening inside China. Spalding spent years living in China as Defense Attache in Bejing and served as the chief China strategist for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Spalding brings his deep knowledge of the people, culture, economy, and military posture of China to the table in discussing the multifaceted threat to the US posed by the rising Asian superpower. Filmed on September 27, 2019 in Washington D.C.

    • Firstly, we have never really had capitalism. And secondly, capitalism is an economic construct not a type of government, therefore, capitalism should have no place in representing a country and it’s people.

    • Even StevenMEMBER

      We KNOW capitalism doesn’t work… without firm rules to constrain and channel it. I haven’t yet come across someone who would support unconstrained capitalism.

      • Never met a libertarian ? Plenty of them will argue the police should be run like a business.

  4. western corporations are model used by CPC used to run the state

    how can anyone expect that authoritarian organisations run by fear and subjugation can make any state democratic
    those same corporations are destroying democracy in the west and yet they are expected to bring democracy to china?

    • I would posit that it is impossible for China as it is today to ever be truly democratic. There are simply too many people, and too great a history of internal conflict. You might get a democratic Hong Kong, democratic Taiwan, democratic Tibet, democratic Xinjiang and a democratic Inner Mongolia, but you won’t get a democratic “China”. The CCP knows this, so they can’t let one go because once they do the whole house of cards falls, hence the totalitarian “crushed bodies and shattered bones”.

  5. It’s probably only been the last few weeks that millions and millions of people have found themselves accidentally on Trump’s side of the trade war.

    He’s now got a totally clear path ahead if he wants to escalate it.

    I’m not a big believer in coincidences, and I’m moderately aware of the CIAs history, so I really wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of one or more ‘western’ intelligence agencies stoking Hong Kong. I also wouldn’t put it past them to have released African Swine Fever a while back.

    They could be entirely organic. They are huuuugely convenient influencing factors though.
    If one were a believer, they might conclude that the gods are smiling on the Orange Man and not so much Pooh.

    • Who knows how ASF got released in China, and honestly, who cares? What is important is that eventually some sort of debilitating animal disease was going to decimate animal protein production in China and that unfortunately the authorities would be helpless against it due to a whole raft of really complicated social, governance, economic, cultural and physical infrastructure reasons. Believe me the officials at the coalfront at the provincial and national level are fully aware of it and they alsoknow that due to the ‘system’ in China while they attempt to take action they’re unlikely to ever change their system to the extent that they’d have a fighting chance of beating something as virulent as ASF. In a globalised world today its easy for as unwitting visitor from somecorner of the globe to travel with contaminated pork and given thevirus survives forup to 6 months in freezing conditions out of a host almost any traveler could have introduced it innocently to China. There is huge amounts of travel between Africa and China with 5 million Chinese citizens living in Africa it was likely was one of them who bought it to China.

      • Some idiot woman (from Vietnam IIRC) tried to come to Australia recently with about 10 kilos of raw diced pork wrapped in plastic bags in her luggage. She obviously “didn’t understand” the questions on the entry card and had her visa cancelled. Given the risks to the country, I would’ve given her 5 years in the slammer, to encourage the others.

        • Nah. They want the message out now – not in 5 years.

          One sacrificial deportation became a global story.
          “Did you hear about the woman who got deported for food?!”

        • Check out thehistory section which details the chain of geographic spread. How often would a Chinese citizen returning home with pork products from am infected region have gone to friends or family in the pork industry and shared a foreign product to compare a foreign crucia delicacy with a Chinese one? It will have happened all the time. Whenever a Chinese person returns from overseas they bring foreign food back to their workplace to share with everyone. I did this for years to treat my colleague without fail after every single trip outside China once I realised how important it was to do this. My colleagues would do this as well as bring back food for family and close friends. The opportunities for contagion are immense, esp given how stretched Chinese customs are.

  6. Bourne Ultimatum

    Chicoms have cleverly tied western based MNCs’ profit motive to acquiescing on traditional liberal values of freedom of speech and human rights. If allowed, they will not hesitate to sell us all down the river to make a quick Chinese buck and before you know it, our posterity will literally become enslaved to an all powerful, technology enabled, autocratic authoritarian regime that will last for 1,000 years. I know this may sound dramatic but the modern day communist party is the functional equivalent of nazi Germany but with the added advantage of modern surveillance, technology and data to help enforce and maintain their grip on power.

  7. Can I get a “well, duh” ?

    Corporations have been busily trying to de-liberalize the western world for decades.

    This is one of the points made by the Rundle article the other day.