The NBA’s groveling reaction to Daryl Morey’s high crime of tweeting “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” sent shockwaves through the sports community. China punishing American companies for their employees’ free speech seems like a radical new threat, and it sent armies of consultants and PR agencies scurrying to find solutions for their clients. It is alarming, but it is not new: totalitarians tried the same thing almost 90 years ago, and Christian organizations rallied alongside parts of American civil society and the business community to defend American values. American businesses should follow their example today.
Germany in the 1930s exerted a strong influence over American journalism and academia. As foreign journalists gradually left or were forced out of Germany, the Associated Press buckled under Nazi pressure to craft coverage favorable to the regime. At home, Ivy League universities punished anti-Nazi faculty members and students.
Large sections of the American business community gave in to Nazi pressure too. IBM’s cutting-edge Hollerith computers compiled detailed census information to identify Jews specifically. Ford and General Motors raced for entry into the lucrative German auto market, and their subsidiaries later armed the Germany military. In Hollywood, the German consul threatened to prevent movies “detrimental to German prestige” from showing in Germany, and MGM adjusted scripts to remove anti-Nazi messaging.
Americans find themselves in a similar bind today regarding China, which is the promising market that Germany was 90 years ago. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) showers favored companies with riches and punishes Americans who do not bow the knee. Last year, Marriott fired an employee for liking a tweet by a Tibetan separatist. Recently, Vice President Pence spoke at Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. about the CCP’s actions “rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists, and local, state, and federal officials.”
This time around, modern technology gives the CCP a greater ability to monitor American behavior than was available to the Nazi regime. Social media allows the CCP to track the thoughts and attitudes of American employees who have never set foot in China. The attack on Morey shows that the CCP is adopting for its own ends the “cancel culture’s” tactics of relentless social media scrutiny.
While most Americans don’t follow foreign affairs closely, the recent CCP overreach is exposing American sports fans and video game players to this rising threat. Fans learned this week that ESPN demanded its employees avoid discussing Hong Kong when talking about the Morey story. ESPN host Stephen A. Smith blasted Morey for his supposed irresponsibility, saying of him, “you have an obligation to adopt and embrace the interest of those you collect a paycheck from.” The message his listeners heard? Chinese Communists can, and will, hurt you if you cross them. ESPN now uses maps, including CCP territorial claims, that international tribunals have ruled invalid.
In today’s economy, where young consumers demand corporate social responsibility, American companies that give in to CCP demands are playing with fire. The NBA, which ostentatiously boycotted North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” runs a training camp in Xinjiang, where over a million Muslims are kept in concentration camps rife with torture and sexual abuse. Skeptical fans will question their support for teams like the Philadelphia 76ers and the Washington Wizards, which ejected fans with small pro-Hong Kong signs. As consumers become more familiar with the CCP’s high-handedness and human rights abuses, companies that leave themselves exposed to charges of hypocrisy will feel the bite.
The backlash is already starting.
Since the CCP so thoroughly permeates the Chinese economy, virtually every company doing business in China interacts with the government, whether they realize it or not. Executives should think carefully about how they will answer questions such as “have you or your company ever taken actions that benefit the Chinese Communist Party?”
Fortunately, patriots who stood up to the Nazi influence in the 1930s provide a template for counteracting CCP influence today. The American Federation of Labor Convention unanimously condemned the Nazis from the start and led an anti-Nazi boycott. Eventually, over 700 New York City-based organizations sent representatives to boycott Nazi conferences. Charities like the Volunteer Christian Committee encouraged its members to pledge “to do nothing, either directly or indirectly, which can aid the German Government” in its human rights abuses.
Because the US economy is so integrated with China’s, a boycott would be counterproductive, but companies should act now to shield themselves from these risks. Businesses and organizations that have dealings with China should adopt a similar pledge, “to do nothing, either directly or indirectly, which can aid the Chinese Communist Party violate human rights, in China or abroad.” The CCP will try to bully pledge signers, but better to lose a business deal now than a hearing later–or a trial.
Mike Watson is the associate director for the Center for the Future of Liberal Society at Hudson Institute.