A couple of years ago, a satirist on Taiwan, the democratic self-governing island that China claims as a province, created an online “Apologize to China” contest. Shortly before, an eighteen-year-old Taiwanese pop singer named Chou Tzu-yu had prompted patriotic outrage in mainland China when it was discovered that she had waved a Taiwanese flag on South Korean television, a gesture taken as disrespect for the sacrosanct One China idea. Facing furious demands that she be banned from performing in China, Chou made a video in which she tearfully begged for forgiveness for her offense, which itself aroused a good deal of dismay on Taiwan about Chinese bullying of a naive teenager. Hence the “Apologize to China” contest.
It was a joke, but there’s been no joking as the apologies to China have come thick and fast in recent weeks, issued not by teenage singers but by some of the largest and richest multinational corporations in the world—the German luxury car manufacturer Daimler, the Marriott Hotel chain, Delta Airlines, and others. Like Chou Tzu-yu’s statement of regret, moreover, the apologies have been striking in their abjectness, their reaffirmation of China’s position on crucial issues like Taiwan and Tibet, even the use of boilerplate language right out of China’s propaganda lexicon.
Though they have been covered in the press, these apologies have received relatively little attention in the home countries of the companies involved. Yet they would seem to reflect two important trends, at a time when Western governments and experts on China are expressing ever-greater worries about the challenge to liberal-democratic values from the rise of authoritarian China—strikingly illustrated this week by Beijing’s announced intention of doing away with presidential term limits, a move aimed at concentrating even more power in the hands of the Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, who is already the object of personality-cult-like veneration. One of these trends is China’s increasingly aggressive effort to control the public discourse about itself, not only in China itself but in other countries as well. The second is the evident willingness, even the eagerness, of major corporations doing business in China to accede to Beijing’s demands.
The Daimler incident came when the publicity department of its subsidiary Mercedes-Benz posted a photo of a sleek, white car on Instagram, which is itself blocked in China, along with what was clearly intended as an inspirational quote from the Dalai Lama: “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” The Dalai Lama is officially viewed by China as a major public enemy—a “splittist” and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” So when the Internet in China lit up with complaints about Mercedes-Benz’s favorable reference to him, the corporation took rapid steps to halt a looming public relations disaster.
“We fully understand this incident has hurt the feelings of Chinese people,” Daimler said, vowing to “take steps to deepen our understanding of Chinese culture and values.” A couple of days later, People’s Daily, evidently not satisfied with this expression of contrition, said that Daimler, too, was an “enemy of the Chinese people.” This might have seemed harsh given the offense—citing an epigram from a Nobel Peace Prize laureate on a website not even visible in China—but the company hastened to issue a second apology. Daimler’s chairman Dieter Zetsche wrote to the Chinese ambassador in Germany, expressing regret for “the hurt and grief that its negligent and insensitive mistake has caused to the Chinese people.”
Such would appear to be the moral cost of becoming dependent on doing business in China. Ten years ago, Mercedes sold fewer than 30,000 cars in China. Last year, its sales were more than 600,000 vehicles, which made China Daimler’s largest market by far—fully a quarter of the Mercedes brand’s global sales. It’s therefore not hard to understand why, when faced with the choice between defending the principle of free speech and yielding to China’s demands, Daimler readily chose the latter.
The other companies that have also recently issued apologies to China—Delta Airlines, Qantas Airlines, the clothing designer Zara, the medical instruments maker Medtronic, and the Marriott International hotel chain (which includes luxury brands like Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis)—all appear to have the same reason to placate China as Daimler did. According to a Marriott press release, for example, 8 percent of the global total of the company’s rooms are in what it calls “Greater China,” meaning China plus Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. That’s already a lot, but it will be more. Marriott says that 19 percent of the hotels currently being developed are also in Greater China, which clearly makes the country a major area of expansion for the chain.
Marriott’s apology stemmed from an online customer survey that included a dropdown menu showing Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau as separate “countries.” This aroused patriotic fury on social media in China, which led to the government’s demand that Marriott shut down its six Chinese-language websites and apps for a week. Marriott responded with a dutiful apology, reaffirming its “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China” and vowing “to actively seek advice and direction from [Chinese] government departments” in the future. Worse than promising to take direction from a one-party dictatorship was the company’s response to an incident that followed the appearance of its customer survey. When a pro-Tibet group tweeted approval of the survey’s identification of Tibet as a country, and a Marriott employee used a corporate Twitter account to “like” the tweet, Marriott fired that employee.
For years, it has been common practice among airlines and other companies to list Taiwan separately from China, and Beijing has raised no objection. That it suddenly finds the practice offensive, and is demanding that companies put an end to it, could simply be part of China’s program to increase Taiwan’s international isolation, to make it pay for its election of a pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen, in May 2016. But China’s increased prickliness is not an isolated phenomenon. It seems part and parcel of a broader, more aggressive, and self-confident stance in the world that Xi has engineered over the past five years—and which includes an effort to shape and even censor the discourse on China in other countries.
A new study by two independent research organizations in Germany—the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the Global Public Policy Institute—provides what is probably the most comprehensive and deeply researched description of what it calls Beijing’s “political influencing efforts.” The study is mostly concerned with Europe, but it draws on examples from around the world to depict an elaborate program involving several important government and party bureaus through which China seeks to gain what the report describes as “preemptive obedience.” That includes demanding support for such policies as its One-Belt-One-Road infrastructure projects, its island-building in the South China Sea, and its moves to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, to build what it calls “strategic partnerships” with other authoritarian countries, to prevent honoring or legitimizing the Dalai Lama, to present its one-party system as a superior alternative to Western-style democracy, and to head off international criticism of its human rights violations.
China even acknowledges this stepped-up effort. In his much-publicized speech to the Nineteenth Party Congress last fall, Xi cited among the achievements of his first five years in office “a further rise in China’s international influence, ability to inspire, and power to shape.” In his presentation, this increased influence is China’s “great new contribution to global peace and development.” Others, though, see it as bullying and threatening behavior. During last month’s confirmation hearing as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the American diplomat Susan Thornton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “we will not abide Chinese attempts… to coerce countries in the region.” The German institutes’ announcement of their report speaks of China’s “promotion of its authoritarian ideals,” which, it warns, poses “a significant challenge to liberal-democracy as well as to European values and interests.”
The German report shows how China uses “economic statecraft” to advance its goals in countries like austerity-straitened Greece and neo-authoritarian Hungary, whose populist leader Viktor Orbán has forged close ties to China. In March 2017, for example, Hungary refused to sign a joint European Union letter denouncing the torture of human rights lawyers in China. In June that year, Greece blocked an EU statement at the UN Human Rights Council criticizing China’s human rights record. It was the first time the EU had failed to deliver a joint statement on Chinese human rights violations.
There have been other recent instances in which foreign entities have yielded to censorious Chinese demands. The tech giant Apple removed from its App Store in China the VPN software most commonly used to circumvent Chinese Internet censorship. The publisher Cambridge University Press initially removed some 315 articles from the China Quarterly, the main scholarly journal on contemporary China, to placate Chinese threats to close its website in China. Later, CUP announced that in defense of academic freedom it would not delete the articles after all, and it remains unclear now whether or not China will permit access to its website. Another publisher, Australia’s Allen & Unwin, canceled publication of Silent Invasion, a book by a university professor, Clive Hamilton, that described Chinese interference in Australian political and intellectual life. The refusal to publish the book seemed to illustrate Hamilton’s very point, though another, braver publisher than Allen & Unwin has announced that it will soon make his work available. The German institutes’ report cites a comment in Global Times, an English-language mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, that seems to affirm the authorities’ attitude that economic ties with China ought to come with political conditions. Australia, the paper said, is “economically dependent on China,” but “it shows little gratitude.”
Not all China’s efforts at censorship outside the country are successful; many are not. Just in recent days, the Chinese embassy in South Africa issued violent objections to a visit there by Lobsang Sangay, the president of Tibet’s government in exile, threatening that the visit would affect Chinese investment in South Africa. Global Times described in glowing terms protests by “hundreds of locals and members of the Chinese community in South Africa” that sought to force the law faculty at Stellenbosch University to cancel a scheduled speech by Sangay. Sangay was able to visit South Africa because he has an American passport and needed no visa, and the address at the university was not canceled. The pro-Chinese press portrayed the demonstration as a spontaneous popular revolt representing the feelings of a majority of South Africans, who—unlike the Australians—are grateful for the economic benefits they derive from China. But South African members of parliament condemned the protests, which the Tibetan Review reported were “orchestrated by the Chinese embassy and led by its officials with a rented crowd of about thirty persons.” One opposition parliamentarian, Sandy Kalyan, likened China’s threat of withholding investment to “a child throwing a tantrum.”
The ferocity of China’s complaints has, however, led many Western and other governments, including South Africa’s, to decline to meet with the Dalai Lama. The threats of economic retaliation, the mobilization of patriotic social-media fury, rigged protests, and demands for apology—for any activity involving Tibetan resistance to China’s repressive rule, any statement favorable to the Dalai Lama, or any expression of sympathy for the desire of democratic Taiwan not to become part of authoritarian China—are now well-established practices employed by China to enforce obedience to its dictates, beyond China’s borders as well as within them. Stellenbosch University resisted the pressure, but Daimler, Marriott, Delta, and other multinational corporations yielded to it. This does not augur well for the defense of liberal values in a world where China’s economic and political power, and its geographical reach, are only growing.
Richard Bernstein was Time’s Bureau Chief in China and a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. His most recent book is China 1945: Mao’s Revolution and America’s Fateful Choice. (September 2017)