The same year, Mercedes-Benz apologized for an Instagram post that quoted the Dalai Lama: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” The Chinese objected to this perfectly boring statement because the Dalai Lama supports greater autonomy for Tibet. Mercedes sells twice as many cars in China than in the U.S. or Germany, and analysts have concluded that “without the emergence of China, the German premium business model would be broken.” So Mercedes looked at the situation from all angles and then, it would seem, selected the angle of shareholder preservation. They deleted the post and apologized profusely.
The muzzling of free expression at the behest of China extends even into the academic world. Last year, The New Republic reported on “an epidemic of self-censorship at U.S. universities on the subject of China.” Many scholars reportedly feel that criticizing the country is too risky, because colleges accept so much money from Chinese institutions affiliated with Beijing.
China exercises a kind of veto power over the global marketplace of speech. Every piece of content that is critical of the government, or dubious of its claims about Tibet, or Taiwan, or Tiananmen Square, or Xinjiang, is subject to grave financial punishment. It amounts to a kind of “values tariff” on the companies and individuals with which China does business. That is, rather than [x] percent tax on imported goods in China, companies must compromise [x] percent of their values to do business in China. The focus might be on the NBA today. But each firm with business there is paying the values tariff.
Read: China bends another American institution to its will
Everybody is having it both ways.
The NBA wields social advocacy as a sword within the U.S. and surrenders its outspokenness at the border. Multinational companies ask their employees to “bring their full selves to work” and then fire those employees when their “full selves” offend Beijing bureaucrats living 10,000 miles away. Academic institutions say they cherish free thought while giving Beijing sway over their employees’ thinking.
But if the NBA is cowardly, and Marriott is shameful, and colleges are hypocrites, then what are we, the consumers, in this equation? China is the U.S.’s largest trading partner, from which we import hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of computer parts, toys, furniture, shoes, and plastic.
The American consumer is prone to ethical spasms, if not to consistency. When Equinox members discovered that one of the gym’s investors was a Trump supporter, it caused a national scandal. Meanwhile, the most popular app in the world, TikTok, was built by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, which, like every Chinese tech company, works closely with the same Chinese Communist Party that tortures Muslims in Xinjiang. Does this mean that American teens are ethically required to delete the app until China shuts down its Xinjiang reeducation camps? Does it mean, by extension, that smartphone users should boycott the iPhone until Apple extricates its supply chain from China? Is there such a thing as ethical trade with China at all?