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When pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were reaching their height last year, China’s government demanded that Apple, Inc. remove from its stores an app that enabled demonstrators to track police checkpoints and protest hotspots.
Apple complied, explaining that it had confirmed with the Hong Kong authorities that its app had been used “to target and ambush police.” But a skeptical researcher for Human Rights Watch termed Apple’s compliance with Beijing’s demand “another shameful incident in which a multinational company bends to Chinese government pressure.”
Apple’s removal of HK.map.live was far from the only time that one of the largest companies in the world has taken a step that pro-democracy activists say has aided and abetted Chinese repression.
In years past, Apple has removed an app that carried news of the Hong Kong demonstrations; it pulled another enabling access to the New York Times Chinese-language website; and yet another for a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, that allows a way around China’s internet “great firewall.” In 2016, it removed from the Hong Kong version of Apple Music a song containing a reference to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, public mention of which is forbidden in China.
Apple’s track record in China is drawing fresh scrutiny as it and other American companies with large stakes there have eagerly embraced Black Lives Matter and the cause of social justice in the United States.
After the death of George Floyd while in police custody in May, Apple pledged $100 million to create a “Racial Equity and Justice Initiative,” that will, Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “challenge the systemic barriers to opportunity and dignity that exist for communities of color, and particularly for the black community.”
Other iconic multinational corporations with strong ties to China — Disney, and Nike among them — also pledged money in the fight against “systemic racism.” Yet Nike has been accused by human rights groups and academic researchers of ignoring forced Uighur labor at factories in its China supply chain.
The CEO of Disney, which is marketing its new movie, “Mulan,” about a female heroine in China who pretends to be a man to fight against injustice, has expressed no concern about the mass incarceration of Uighurs, though some of the filming took place in Xinjiang, the province where these abuses are alleged. The company also shares ownership with the Chinese government of the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort.
The three main U. S. airlines that fly into China have also pledged the support of anti-racism efforts, even allowing their employees to wear Black Lives Matter pins on flights. But in 2018, American, United, and Delta airlines meekly complied with China’s demand that they remove the name “Taiwan” from their drop-down destination menus, implicitly recognizing authoritarian Beijing’s claims on the democratic island.
All of this raises an obvious question: If, as the BLM slogan has it, “silence equals violence” in America, then doesn’t silence equal violence in China too?
“If these companies are so supportive of BLM, they should show some sensitivity, some awareness of abuses in China,” said Peter Irwin, a staff member of the Uighur Human Rights Project, a U. S.-based advocacy group. “If you’re making a lot of your profits in China, doesn’t your responsibility increase?”
The question arises at a time of increasing global attention on China’s human rights violations, which include the suppression of the Hong Kong democracy movement, the “disappearance” dozens of human rights lawyers, the strictest censorship of the internet in the world, and the mass incarceration in Xinjiang of more than a million members of its Uighur minority, which human rights groups and many democratic governments around the world are now calling a “crime against humanity” and even “genocide.”
Corporations have traditionally steered clear of politics, whether at home or abroad. In China, companies like Disney, Apple, and many others with large stakes have, when forced to address an issue they would much rather ignore, cast their accommodation to China’s “local conditions” as both necessary and harmless. To speak out on human rights or to defy China’s regulations regarding censorship, they insist, would harm their businesses while doing nothing to change Chinese behavior.
The response from human rights advocates is, first of all, that executives of these multinationals are being deliberately misleading when they downplay their actions and influence. Corporate acquiescence, not to mention actual complicity, in China’s repressive policies, have obvious – and harmful – consequences, they say.
For starters, it is used by the Chinese media to burnish the image of the Chinese Communist Party and its top leaders. A few years ago, right after China’s rubber-stamp parliament ended term limits and effectively made the country’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, its president for life, a group of American business leaders, including Apple’s Cook, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Blackstone Group Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman, congratulated him publicly in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Chinese news broadcasts showed the Americans applauding for 10 seconds after Xi spoke.
“If big companies like Apple and Disney give in to China in the face of Chinese pressure, other companies give in also,” Teng Biao, the Grove Human Rights Scholar at Hunter College in New York, said in a phone interview. “If companies apologize to China in the face of Chinese pressure, that will help to create a global climate of self-censorship about China, and self-censorship is contagious.”
Corporate capitulation also helps China further its dual goal of avoiding criticism on human rights internationally while changing the very definition of rights, so they are no longer universal concepts involving the protection of all people against government repression, but considered in light of each country’s traditions and needs. In other words, they yield to government control.
Last year, 23 members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, operating under the idea that human rights are universal, issued a statement critical of China for its mass detention of Uighurs. In response, China went on a diplomatic offensive, using economic and other pressure to persuade 54 mostly non-democratic countries to approve of its measures in Xinjiang as “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization.”
“China promotes the idea of human rights with Chinese characteristics so as to undermine the universal definition of human rights,” Teng, who was arrested three times in China during his years as a lawyer there, said. “The aim is to restrict the concept of freedom globally.”
China’s efforts to garner support for its authoritarian alternative to traditional human rights “feels like a direct existential threat,” Ted Piccone, a former State Department official, wrote in a report for the Brookings Institution, “because it seeks to subvert the fundamental norms which have shaped global programs toward greater respect for liberal democracy and the rule of law.”
In 2017, China held its fourth annual World Internet Conference in Beijing, an event seen by analysts as a way of promoting government control of internet content as a matter of cybersecurity. Cook, whose presence enhanced the conference’s standing, gave a keynote speech absent any opposition to China’s gambit. Instead, he said he was “proud” to “join a common future in cyberspace” with Apple’s “many partners in China.”
The contrast between companies’ response to the Black Lives Matter movement and their acquiescence to Chinese abuses has created some awkward situations. The Walt Disney Co. has pledged $5 million to a group of social justice organizations so that “acts of racism and violence are never tolerated.” Meanwhile, the star of “Mulan” posted her support of the Hong Kong police during the demonstrations there last year.
No one has to wonder what would have happened if the actress, Liu Yifei, had taken an opposite position in support of the protesters. We’ve seen that movie: It’s called the National Basketball Association.
Last year, when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted “Stand with Hong Kong,” the Chinese government reacted furiously, pulling NBA games from Chinese central television, which reportedly cost the league hundreds of millions in revenue. The NBA’s executives and star players rallied to the cause — Beijing’s cause, that it is.
The league’s biggest star, LeBron James, a prominent supporter of BLM, tweeted that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation.” Although NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement supporting free speech, the NBA didn’t defend Morey or the idea of universal human rights or democracy in Hong Kong.
Some maintain that Chinese society would be even more repressive without its network of economic relations and associations with foreign businesses. If Apple were barred from the China market, this theory goes, Samsung would happily step in with no benefit to anybody except Samsung, and no improvement in China’s treatment of dissenters.
This was essentially the argument advanced by Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, when TV journalist Megyn Kelly asked in a recent interview whether he would go on the record publicly by saying that China does commit human rights violations.
“I personally put priority on domestic issues,” Cuban replied. “I’m OK with doing business with China. And so we have to pick our battles. I wish we could solve all the world’s problems, but we can’t.” But human rights experts contend that there is a middle way that corporations and others could follow, something between open criticism and meek acquiescence.
“There’s some things that don’t help,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California-Irvine, said in an interview. “Of course, heads of companies and heads of universities need to go to China, but they can say they don’t want the photo op with Xi. They don’t have to be on Central TV news applauding him. They can shape the parameters of what they do.”
Wasserstrom notes that China is preparing to host the Winter Olympic Games in 2022, which the Chinese Communist Party will use to enhance its standing and prestige. “When the first reports of the Xinjiang concentration camps came out, there should have been statements that if the system continues to grow, we’ll have to consider pulling out,” he said. “The Chinese leadership should be told, ‘We’re keeping an eye on settings like Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and what happens in those places will tip the balance on whether we participate in the Olympics or not.’”
China in this view may project an attitude of strength and determination in setting the rules, but many analysts believe that the country’s leadership is in fact deeply insecure, which is the reason for its ever-tightening control.
“For over four decades, U. N. policymakers viewed human rights in China not as a question of core interests, but rather as a matter of values to be promoted when doing so did not interfere with higher priority security or economic concerns,” Andrew J. Nathan, a specialist both on Chinese politics and human rights at Columbia University, wrote in a recent article. But now Trump administration officials, with bilateral approval in Congress, “have pushed the Sino-American clash of values to the center of the two countries’ strategic rivalry.”
This could mean increased pressure on companies that, wittingly or not, are complicit in abusive practices. Earlier this year, the Washington Post found that young Uighur women, “under conditions that suggest forced labor,” were working in Shandong province stitching Nike Shox and Air Max footwear.
Similarly, an Australian think tank has found that at least 80,000 Uighurs and other Muslim minority-group members from Xinjiang have been forcibly moved to other parts of China where they work in factories even as they undergo political “reeducation.” This had led the Uighur Campaign for Human Rights to call on Nike and other brands “to prevent their supply chains being linked to forced labor of Uighurs and other Turkic and other Muslim-majority peoples.”
“Nike should come out and say, ‘We’re against concentration camps,’” Irwin said in a Zoom conversation. “But when it comes to forced labor, they make only vague statements. It’s a collective issue. One single company would be very nervous, but if five or six companies banded together and said they’re leaving the region unless human rights are respected, that would make a difference.”
“If big global companies like Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft made some public statements or didn’t cooperate with the regime, that would attract attention, be influential, and establish a model for other companies,” Teng said. “It would be powerful. If, for example, all the airlines refused to cooperate in the face of Chinese pressure, then it’s likely that the Chinese government would have to compromise.”
Responding to such criticism, some companies have begun to speak out, however cautiously, on human rights. In September, Apple issued a carefully worded statement saying that it is “committed to respecting the human rights of everyone whose lives we touch,” but it didn’t specifically mention China or any other country. It also affirmed, “We’re required to comply with local laws.”
Following The Post and the Australian think tank reports, Nike issued a statement essentially repudiating the claims. “Our ongoing diligence has not found evidence of employment of Uighurs or other ethnic minorities from XUAR [the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region] or elsewhere in our supply chain in China.”
The statement also referred to an unidentified independent audit concluding there were no longer any Uighurs working at the Shandong plant reported on in the Post article. How intensely Nike has studied the situation is hard to tell. Given China’s opaque nature, the close supervision of inquisitive foreigners, and the pressures put on local people not to talk to them, the claims of the Nike statement are probably far from definitive.
But on supporting the anti-racism movement, the company is unambiguous. In June, following George Floyd’s death, Nike announced a $40 million initiative to focus on “investing in and supporting organizations that put social justice, education, and addressing racial inequality in America at the center of their work.”