Op-ed: American corporations must stop selling out to China's brutal regime

  • The Chinese government's ability to decisively influence even miniscule advertising decisions across America should be cause for great concern in a world in which U.S. movies, schools and publishers bow to Chinese fiscal pressure, write Bill Drexel and Paul Wolfowitz.

According to legend, when Vladimir Lenin was asked how he planned to "hang all the capitalists" in the face of a rope shortage in the young Soviet Union, he replied "don't worry comrade, the capitalists will sell us the rope."

Though likely apocryphal, the quote captures the spirit of what Lenin wrote more precisely – and just as cold-bloodedly – in a  manuscript note: 

"They [the capitalists] will furnish credits which will serve us for the support of the Communist Party in their countries and, by supplying us materials and technical equipment which we lack, will restore our military industry necessary for our future attacks against our suppliers. To put it in other words, they will work on the preparation of their own suicide."

Fortunately, the Soviets were largely hamstrung from realizing Lenin's vision by America's Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls list, or COCOM, which barred the sale of advanced computers and other high-priority items to the USSR, often against the wishes of over-eager American businesses. But the People's Republic of China, by contrast, not only has much greater ability to buy similar instruments of our destruction; it also has discovered a monetary leverage point that Lenin could only have dreamed of: international censorship.

Unsurprisingly, direct Chinese investment into foreign media companies has proved effective at silencing criticism of the PRC. But Chinese officials may be surprised themselves by just how much control the lure of their markets' profits has given them over what large foreign companies say.

When Sony and Disney produced "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Kundun," respectively, in 1997, which portrayed the PRC's brutalization of Tibet, the PRC excluded those studios from presenting any movies in China. The following year, both studios sent high-level delegations to bow before Chinese officials.

Disney's CEO Michael Eisner declared "Kundun" to be "a stupid mistake." He added: "The good news is that nobody watched it. In the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening." Sony dispatched a whole delegation to apologize similarly. "Hollywood's groveling worked," The Wall Street Journal reported, and "Sony and Disney movies were soon flowing into China again."

Hollywood hasn't had a major production critical of China since then.

But PRC thought-controllers are determined to crush even much smaller annoyances, like the Chinese-Australian former reporter for The New York Times, Vicky Xu, who has been under attack from China's army of wumaos, or paid internet trolls, who vilified her on Twitter with vicious accusations of sexual deviance and drug abuse.

Hers is a classic example of the PRC's hypocrisy: while shutting down the room for free speech in Hong Kong's internet, the Chinese Communist Party leverages freedom of expression abroad to maliciously attack views contrary to the Party line.

Another target is the American vlogger Matt Tye, whose discerning criticism of the WHO in China we have noted previously. Like Xu and many others, Tye receives a constant barrage of online harassment, most recently in the form of English-language CCP shills attempting to portray him as a white supremacist. But Tye has also encountered CCP censorship within the U.S.:  while these same shills have their popularity artificially inflated by bots and wumao, China's wumao also found ways to demonetize Tye's videos on YouTube — throttling their view count and revenue.

More disturbingly, Tye's sponsored ads — the agreements made directly with American corporations that make up his primary source of income — have dropped off precipitously from fears of even potential business prospects with China. With only a single tenuous sponsorship remaining, Tye rightly points out that the "cowardice" of many of these companies could replicate the Hollywood effect in public discourse, suffocating all voices critical of the Chinese government.

Tye's experience shows just how granular and far-reaching the CCP's influence on American corporations already is. The advertisement difficulties of individual YouTubers may seem like a small matter, but the deliberate distortion of Americans' understanding of a belligerent authoritarian superpower is no small matter at all.

To the contrary, the PRC's ability to decisively influence even miniscule advertising decisions across America, including with companies that do not do business with China directly, should be cause for great concern in a world in which our movies, schools and publishers bow to Chinese fiscal pressure.

Our country has become largely desensitized to its largest conglomerates habitually selling out to a brutal dictatorship. American corporations which want to demonstrate their independence from PRC pressure — or their willingness to stand up to it — can do so by supporting the many China commentators being silenced and harassed by the CCP.

Even Lenin wasn't cynical enough to think that democracies would sell out their freedom of speech. It is high time that companies with integrity began to stand up. 

Paul Wolfowitz, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia (1982-86), U.S. ambassador to Indonesia (1986-89) and deputy defense secretary (2001-05). Bill Drexel, a research assistant at AEI, studied Chinese state surveillance and censorship at Tsinghua University.

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