There is more than one possible answer. And given China’s importance in the world—as a major economic power; as the country with the most advanced practice of surveillance authoritarianism, which it is now exporting to other countries; and as the home to 1.4 billion people—a lot hangs in the balance, depending on which one is correct.
Let’s dispense with the easy question. While the speed with which Western companies revealed that they lack even the most elementary hint of a spine is alarming, their behavior isn’t difficult to understand. Basketball is big in China, and the country is a very important market for the NBA, such that team owners are already preparing for a drastically lowered salary cap with the lost Chinese revenue. China has made giant investments in gaming companies, and has many eager gamers. Apple depends on China for much of its hardware production and to juice its iPhone sales. Western companies (and governments) have deeply integrated themselves with an authoritarian regime without thinking through the consequences, and when push comes to shove, many will choose money over their nice mission statements. This is an unpleasant but clear-cut answer.
Understanding Western companies’ craven reaction might not be complicated, but the same thing cannot be said for China, which is known for strategic savviness. For example, after the 2014 Sunflower protests in Taiwan targeting a China-Taiwan trade pact, China started offering outright cash and substantive subsidies to young tech entrepreneurs in Taiwan if they would move to an incubator in mainland China. That’s smart thinking with a view to the future.
But none of that subtle approach or long-term thinking was visible in China’s extreme reaction to a single tweet by Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, which was quickly deleted. Morey, simply wrote, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” a widespread plea in the Hong Kong protests and the first one I heard when landing at Hong Kong’s airport at the start of my research into the protests.
Derek Thompson: The NBA-China disaster is a stress test for capitalism
And just like that, the Chinese state broadcaster canceled the planned airing of several preseason NBA games. Chinese digital giants such as Tencent have dutifully followed suit and won’t stream them. Then, in the same week, Blizzard, the gaming giant, took drastic action against a Hong Kong gamer who wore a mask like the protesters when he was being interviewed after a tournament win. The company stripped him of his prize money and banned him from the gaming league for a year. Now employees are walking out and a boycott is being organized by gamers.
When mighty Apple joined the censorship, it did it with a zigzag. First, Apple banned a Hong Kong mapping app, HKmap.live, which helps protesters and passersby by crowdsourcing the locations of tear gas, police activity, roadblocks, subway shutdowns, and the like. After Apple encountered swift backlash, including from U.S. senators and pro-democracy Hong Kong legislators, it reversed its decision, saying that it had been a “mistake.” But when the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, blasted Apple for putting the app back in the iOS store and not so subtly stated that this decision would “cause much trouble for Apple” and damage its market appeal, Apple quickly caved again, pulling the app for the second time.