Are China's Tantrums Signs of Strength or Weakness?

China is supposed to be savvy. So why is it throwing a fit about a tweet, an app, and a gamer in a mask in the absence of any real threat?

Xi Jinping raises his glass and proposes a toast at the end of his speech.
Nicolas Asfour / Pool via Reuters

The Hong Kong protests have entered a fifth month, a longevity that might have been hard to predict at the outset. The protests were sparked in reaction to an extradition bill that protesters feared would mean turning over dissidents to mainland China, but have turned into a broad movement over fears that liberties under the “one country, two systems” promised when the United Kingdom turned over its colony to China would be trampled.

Inevitably, this brought the Chinese government into conflict with Western companies that do business with China. Recently, the Chinese government has started flexing its muscles, going so far as to pressure Western companies to censor their own employees. Many companies, even big ones, are already caving, including Apple, the NBA, and the gaming company Blizzard Entertainment.

People from across the American political spectrum—you don’t often see Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sign a joint statement—are rightfully asking why Western companies have been so quick to crumble, betraying the core American value of free speech.

But a larger, and more consequential, question remains: Why is the Chinese government throwing a fit over things that are otherwise so minor?

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.

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,, 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.

After the second reversal, Apple CEO Tim Cook sent a letter to employees, claiming that the company had received “credible information” from the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app was “being used maliciously to target individual officers for violence and to victimize individuals and property when no police are present.”

I’ve used the app and its website for months now, and that claim makes so little sense that even the Hong Kong police weren’t willing to back it up in public. The first time the Hong Kong government was questioned on this issue, on October 10, it told journalists to ask Apple, and pointed out that the decision to take down the app from the store was made by Apple.

The second time the journalists pressed, on October 11, the police spokesperson said, “The app could leak the police officers’ whereabouts, which could facilitate the criminals to ambush our officers.” Notice the many coulds, because the app doesn’t really leak anything nonpublic, because it’s not really updated in real time, because its display is far from granular (showing only groups of police rather than individual officers), and, in any case, it collects the information from Telegram and other sources that have a lot more up-to-the-minute reports. To make matters worse, no known incidents of police being ambushed in Hong Kong come anywhere near these claims.

That the app is obviously not a driver of protests or a threat to police makes it important to understand China’s behavior, because if the app were really a threat, understanding why China was so vocal would be easy. But as I’ve learned observing the protests for several months, Hong Kong has well-known protest flash points, and the police aren’t hiding where they are: They show up in large packs with flashing lights and vans, and they are legally required to display a series of flags warning protesters to disperse. The flags are in different colors for different warnings: black for tear gas, orange for rubber bullets, yellow for police cordon, and so on. The app reports these flags, which the police obviously want reported. That’s the whole reason they are displayed. Indeed, the best use of the app, in my view, is to learn about police warnings and roadblocks in order to avoid the area and not get teargassed by surprise—something I’ve seen happen to families with children and other passersby who had no idea what they were walking into.

The protesters aren’t ambushing the authorities. They’re running away. Their philosophy is “to be water”—after the Hong Konger Bruce Lee’s maxim—and to disperse quickly so that rather than getting arrested, they live to protest another day. And they are good at it! I’ve seen them disappear in less than a minute. Police sometimes give chase, but I have to say, the agile youngsters run a lot faster than the geared-down police.

So why is China demanding significant censorship from Western companies—as in the case of this app—in the absence of a real threat? One thing to note is that while the original events being censored are minor to the point of trivial, the backlash creates a huge amount of publicity. You might be tempted to think that China has a Streisand-effect problem, in which trying to censor an event creates even more publicity. But that assumes the Chinese government doesn’t understand the Streisand effect, and that can’t be right, because if one government understands attention dynamics online, it’s China’s.

Significant amounts of scholarship show that the Chinese government has been very good at burying important news by distracting from it with other, flashy but unrelated news. This shows a subtle and powerful understanding of the Streisand effect: Instead of censoring, China diverts attention. It’s actually a myth that everything is censored in mainland China. The government tends to let some things circulate, partly as a means to gauge public opinion, which helps solve the problem that plagues all authoritarian governments: They become blind to trouble spots.

If the Chinese government didn’t realize that trying to censor a single NBA employee with such a massive overreaction would bring Hong Kong to the forefront of the world’s attention, then it is truly lost. Before this event, when I told ordinary people how much time I spent in Hong Kong, they had a faint clue about the nature and substance of the protests. This week, I went to the gym and ESPN was on full blast, discussing Hong Kong and censorship both. People are crowdfunding a drive to have all fans wear Free Hong Kong T-shirts to NBA games. Apple’s decision has attracted an enormous amount of attention. Blizzard fans in America are organizing boycotts, and the company sheepishly announced that it’s returning the prize money it snatched from the gamer in a panic.

If the Chinese government stumbles into a publicity problem, that will mark an important shift in the evolution of Chinese authoritarianism, and it’s not impossible. Authoritarian governments, even smart ones, can fall into a trap of malaise and stupidity, especially if they consolidate power under a single leader. Over time, the single leader gets worse and worse information, as those around them start saying only things that they think will please the leader, which in turn makes the leader more paranoid, creating further disincentives to challenge them, leading to still worse information.

A second explanation assumes that China knows exactly what it is doing, meaning that these moves are meant to be high-profile salvos against Western companies. The theory here is that China is happy to take backlash now, in return for the longer-term goal of having companies self-censor without needing to be prodded.

Future Daryl Moreys of the world will know not to tweet, rather than deleting a tweet afterward and then having to watch their company and their league grovel. Apple will know that it should never let such apps take off, and will deny them without needing to be scolded by the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, the list of companies apologizing to China over real or imagined slights is long. Other big gaming companies are preemptively sending instructions to employees and gamers, asking them not to discuss Hong Kong on the air.

Even the high-end jeweler Tiffany & Co. pulled an ad in which a model had one hand over her cheek and one over her eye—if you squinted and had a truly wild imagination, and perhaps weren’t fully sober, you might have just managed to imagine that the ad harked back to a flash point in the Hong Kong protests, which occurred when a medic lost her vision in one eye after being shot with a beanbag. Hong Kong protesters sometimes do close one of their eyes as a protest gesture, but they certainly don’t look like that ad, in which the model’s hand position is clearly highlighting an expensive ring. Still, the company took the whole thing down, expressed “regret,” and stated that the ad had been photographed in May and wasn’t meant to be a political statement. For context, Tiffany is planning to open more stores in mainland China, and hoping to make its Shanghai store its second-most-important outlet, behind its iconic Fifth Avenue store.

And so maybe we are entering a new age when China will push around Western companies to make its point. For all we know, Xi Jinping is looking across the Pacific at the crumbling governance, the failing infrastructure, the hollowed-out manufacturing capacity, the myriad elite failures, and the general decay in Western societies and has decided that the time is here to confidently declare that if you want to do business with China, it’s China’s way or the (crumbling) highway. He might have decided that the time when it needed to deploy strategic silence on the divergence in stated values is over, essentially telling us “Free speech, free shmeech” and getting away with it.

Judging by the speed with which these companies have rushed to kowtow, maybe he’s right?

Or, alternatively, in this truly global and interconnected world, China might be experiencing its own form of failure and weakness, with a more and more centralized rule pushing a cult of personality around the leader. After all, China has its own problems with decadence, corruption, and inequality. Many high-level officials have families with multiple passports and expansive overseas wealth. A mixture of authoritarian malaise and loss of agility might be causing the country to lash out, without proper strategic analysis. This same dynamic seems to be at work in China’s approach to the Hong Kong protests, which could have been defused early through a few symbolic concessions. It’s as though China doesn’t even understand a city that is under its own jurisdiction.

Is China an integrated part of the global failure and corruption of elites, failing in its own way due to shortsightedness and incompetence? Or is it a confident new superpower that is just beginning to throw its weight around? I can’t say for sure which is true, and I don’t think it’s easy to quickly conclude one way or the other, but we should consider the question with the full gravity it deserves, because the answer will shape the fate of billions in the 21st century.