China's Money Is Valued More Than Human Rights, and That’s a Problem

American corporations need to pick a lane: human rights, or censorship and oppression.

Happy Friday morning everyone, congratulations on living another week. Last week’s post was a little political, so I wanted to write about something this week we can all agree on: human rights. Which, as it turns out, have everything to do with money.

Multiple spineless American corporations recently caved in to Chinese demands regarding the Hong Kong protests. The NBA, whether it wants to admit it or not, reprimanded one of their GMs for supporting the Honk Kong protests. Blizzard, the video game developer responsible for World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and Hearthstone, suspended a professional Hearthstone player for speaking out in support of the protests.

Apple, after this article was written, banned an app used by protestors in Hong Kong to track police and locate safe zones. Apple said in a statement that the app violated their own guidelines. Apparently it’s okay for Americans to use the navigation and police tracking app Waze to avoid speeding tickets, but it isn’t okay for Hong Kong protestors to use an app designed to keep them away from police brutality. I’m sure this has nothing to do with the billions of dollars Apple has on the line in the rapidly expanding Chinese smartphone market.

ESPN wanted in on the action as well, and issued a memo to employees forbidding any discussion about the Hong Kong protests. This might seem reasonable on the surface since they are a sports network, but the president of ESPN had this to say about sports and politics last year:

There is the intersection between sports and politics. When Tiger is talking about the president, when the anthem story, every time that there is an intersection, ESPN is the place of record. Of course, when you tune into ESPN, we should be, we need to be covering those stories, if there is a connection to sports.

- ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro

Protests in Hong Kong have clearly intersected with the NBA, but it seems like ESPN’s own Chinese connections are getting in the way of coverage.

China’s record on human rights

China has a long history of oppression, and the communist country has come under even more scrutiny recently. Groups of Muslims in China are being placed in “re-education camps,” where they are going to learn Chinese and vocational skills, say Chinese officials. In reality, they’re being rapedbrainwashed, and having their organs harvested.

In addition to persecuting citizens for their religious beliefs, China is accused of discrimination against minorities, excessive use of the death penalty, torture, government censorship, and mistreating those with disabilities. This is not a complete list of all of China’s human rights violations, but merely a taste of what goes on in China.

The Hong Kong protests

Protests in Hong Kong were initially sparked by a bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to China. The extradition bill has been scrapped (for now, at least), but protestors are still fighting for an investigation into police brutality, amnesty for protestors, the right to elect leaders, and for the government to stop referring to the protests as riots.

When the Houston Rockets GM recently tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests, he accidentally revealed a side of American corporations we don’t usually get to see. The NBA went into damage control mode immediately after the tweet was sent, and the tweet has since been deleted. As it turns out, the progressive sports league that encourages athletes to speak out about racial issues suddenly isn’t so progressive any more.

The NBA stood with Lebron when he criticized President Trump, and even moved the All-Star Game out of North Carolina due to the polarizing bathroom bill. So why are they afraid to take a much less controversial stance for human rights in China?

Apple, like the NBA, is perceived as a “progressive” corporation. Apple is a big supporter of LGBT rights, and has taken stances on the environment, immigration rights, and diversity. When protestors in Hong Kong (many of whom are Apple customers) are getting brutalized by police while fighting for democracy, though, Apple is afraid to take a stand.

Why won’t corporations stand up for human rights?

I don’t mean to stereotype, but conservative Americans generally prefer football or baseball over basketball, and most basketball fans are pretty liberal. The NBA standing up for liberal values isn’t brave, it’s on-brand. They knew they weren’t going to lose any viewers or alienate their fanbase. Standing up for human rights in China could cost them a lot of money, though; basketball is huge in China, and they aren’t huge fans of freedom or democracy.

Supporting basic human rights sounds really good in theory, but that tantalizing Chinese market is just dangling out there with their growing middle class and love for basketball.

Like the NBA, Apple isn’t being brave by standing up for LGBT rights or the environment. They are doing what’s best for the balance sheet. Too often we applaud corporations for making business decisions that just so happen to be morally correct; the NBA, Apple, or any other corporation doesn’t care about human rights in China unless it affects their bottom line. And as it just so happens, standing up for human rights in China will affect their bottom line, and corporations have taken a strong stance: they are against human rights.

Is this the one issue Democrats and Republicans agree on?

Prominent Democrats and Republicans, such as Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke, are uniting against a common enemy: the NBA (and China). Our beloved American corporations may have all sold their souls to China, but at least we can take solace in the fact that politicians from across the aisle are coming together.

I would like to think our politicians are standing up to China because of the egregious human rights violations, but in reality they’re probably just jealous of all the money the NBA is getting from China. Expect China-bashing to continue for now, perhaps until China can figure out how to manipulate our elections and buy more of our politicians.

The rise of globalization

Decades ago, before we were all connected by the world wide web, issues like this wouldn’t exist. News travels from one side of the globe to the other in seconds. More than ever before, we have a global economy. American corporations want to expand to every country they can, and make as much money as they possibly can, because why wouldn’t they?

Before the rise of globalization, American corporations stood for American values. For better or worse, the soul of America has been intertwined with American corporations, and vice versa. Companies knew in order to make money, they needed values that reflected the average American. As the country has changed and grown, so have our corporations. Many companies now have diversity and inclusion initiatives, and they aren’t afraid to stand up for racial justice or LGBT issues.

As corporations expand to China, they’re picking up some of their values, too. The NBA doesn’t really care how oppressed the people are as long as they watch basketball games. Apple doesn’t care how many innocent people are murdered and have their organs harvested by the government as long as there are plenty of people left to buy iPhones. Corporations are fitting in very well in China; they’re already censoring speech and looking the other way.

We as Americans get to watch it all unfold. We get to watch Nike pretend to care about racial issues, and Apple act like they care about the environment. Then we watch them put on a mask (or take off the mask), and tell China they don’t believe in human rights or freedom of speech, and that harvesting organs isn’t really that big of a deal. In fact, Apple has been lacking innovation for several years now; breaking into the organ harvesting industry could be just what they need.

Corporations may only care about money, but there is something everyone can do about it. All of us have some amount of money (presumably). If we only give that money to companies who care about human rights, we can shape their behavior and actions. The United States is still the richest country in the world, so we have a lot of power. We can show corporations that they can’t have their cake and eat it too; they need to either choose freedom of speech and human rights, or government censorship, oppression, and torture.

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