It’s no secret that the Chinese government censors the media for its own people—but Chinese censorship doesn’t stop at the border.
SEE ALSO: 10 Reasons Why Communism Sucks
With 1.4 billion people and the second-largest GPD in the world, China has a lot of economic power to throw around. They can—and have—used their financial influence to control how news stories are told abroad, even in countries guaranteed free speech.
Never has this been apparent than now, as protests in Hong Kong have grown into a life-or-death battle for democracy. The whole world is watching as more than a million people fight for their freedom, but China is doing everything it can to control what we say and what we see.
On Oct. 4, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, unleashed a firestorm with a tweet: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
The NBA has no stranger to political controversy. Players have protested police killings and immigration laws and never been forced to apologize—but right now, basketball is booming into China’s biggest sport. China’s a market that doesn’t stand for free speech—and to the NBA, they’re worth more than $4 billion.
Shortly after Morey’s tweet, the Chinese Consulate announced that they have contacted the NBA and urged them to “correct the error” of Morey’s tweet—and they meant business. Multiple NBA events in China were cancelled, their Shanghai arena had every corporate sponsor logo erased from the floor, and Nike pulled down all Houston Rockets merchandise from their Chinese website.
It worked. Everyone from the owner of the rockets to star player James Harden and even players on other teams chimed in to apologize to China. Even Morey backed down. He deleted his own tweet calling for democracy in Hong Kong and issued an apology of his own.
“Any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability,” the Chinese-run press wrote about the controversy, “is not within the scope of freedom of speech.”
In a leaked memo from ESPN’s senior news director, Chuck Salituro, the reporters at America’s biggest sports broadcasting network were ordered to avoid discussing any politics in Hong Kong.
The memo was sent out after Morey’s tweet became a top story. Across the sports industry, higher-ups immediately went to work pre-emptively censoring their own people to make sure China didn’t crack down on them the way they had the NBA.
Most ESPN anchors skirted around the issue, referring to Hong Kong’s fight for democracy an “anti-government protests” and moving on. But at least one ESPN commentator actually went on the air and blasted Morey for speaking up.
“What were you thinking speaking up on this issue?” ESPN’s Stephen Smith said on the air. “You have an obligation to adopt and embrace the interests of those you collect a paycheck from.”
Morey’s words had, after all, affected the interests of those Smith collects a paycheck from. After his statement came out, ESPN’s Chinese partner Tencent suspended all broadcasts of the NBA in China.
Influencing sports news is one thing, but a whole other line gets crossed when Chinese propaganda shows up in American newspaper. And yet, that happens on a regular basis.
The propaganda arm of the Chinese government pays for a supplement called “China Watch” that appears in the Washington Post, The New York Times, and other major papers. It’s a series of news articles that show up in one of America’s top newspaper, written by the Chinese state-controlled media with an agreement that American editors cannot change the contents.
As the Hong Kong protests heated up, they wrote articles saying that parents in Hong Kong has “condemned foreign entities for misleading young people in the city.” Those parents, it said in the Washington Post, had “marched outside the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macao, calling on the US to stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs.”
It is somewhat ironic that the newspaper’s slogan is “Democracy dies in darkness”. Nevertheless, the Washington Post has defended publishing Chinese propaganda by arguing that China Watch is an “advertising supplement and has always been clearly labeled as such.”
Dean Gainor of the Media Research Center, however, shot back: “Are they so desperate for cash, when they are owned by one of the richest men in human history, that they have to publish propaganda for communist China?”
Apple has come under fire for banning an app called HKmap.live that shows protestors where the police are located to help keep them safe.
The app fought a long battle to get on the app store in the first place, only making it on after arguing it was effectively no different from Waze. Apple almost immediately pulled it, however, saying that it was being used to attack police officers. Their source, they said, was “the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau.”
HKmap.live, however, is far from the only app that’s been pulled from the app store at China’s request. Apple has banned all VPN apps in Hong Kong and even removed the emoji of Taiwanese flag at their request.
Most troubling of all, they’ve even censored the news. On Sept. 30th, Apple removed the Quartz News app for including “content that is illegal in China.” That “illegal content”, most agree, is almost certainly their extensive coverage of the protests in Hong Kong.
Sometimes, a company doesn’t even have to make a statement to get censored by the Chinese media. All it takes is a simple mistake.
Tiffany & Co released an ad in which Chinese model Sun Feifei shows shows off a ring by holding her hand over her right eye and the Chinese media erupted. Sun Feifei, they believed, was making the “eye-for-an-eye” gesture used by protestors in Hong Kong after a young woman lost an eye, and they weren’t going to stand for it.
They bombarded Tiffany’s social median and Sun Feifei Weibo page, demanding: “Do you support Hong Kong independence?” and “Don’t think all China have gone blind like you.”
It’s highly unlikely Sun Feifei or anyone at Tiffany was actually making a political statement. The ad campaign had started before the Hong Kong protests, so the gesture was almost certainly a coincidence.
Even the appearance of a political statement, however, can affect the bottom line of a company that does business with China. And so Tiffany & Co. was forced to apologize and take down the ad.
TikTok is rapidly becoming one a major social media app. It was the single downloaded app worldwide in the first half of 2018—and most of the people using it don’t realize that on it, they’re subject to some of the same censorship rules as citizens of China.
Leaked documents from ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns the app, have revealed that moderators are specifically ordered to censor all videos mentioning Tiananmen Square, Tibetan Independence, or Falun Gong—as well as simple criticisms of the Chinese socialist system.
The documents that have been leaked were written before the Hong Kong protests began, so they don’t specifically mention by name, but reporters have pointed out that searches for the protests bring up little to nothing.
So why isn’t there more of an outroar over this? Because most of the people who get censored don’t even know it’s happening. Typically, TikTok deals will political dissidence by marking the posts “only visible to self.” So, to the user, it doesn’t look like they’re being censored—it just looks like nobody’s interested in what they have to say.
Vans came under fire after censoring a pair of sneakers that support the Hong Kong protests.
They’d run a contest that let fans make their own sneakers, promising that the winner, by online vote, would get $25,000 and see their design manufactured by the brand. A sneaker showing the red flower of the Hong Kong flag with cartoon protesters in gas masks and hard hats was on track to win the contest—until it was disqualified for political content.
That move sparked so much protest that Vans stores in Hong Kong had to temporarily close down out of fear, but it’s hardly the only time a clothing company has censored itself for China.
Versace, Givenchy, Dior, Swarovski, Coach, Calvin Klein, and countless other both have been forced to apologize for releasing clothing that refers to Hong Kong or Taiwan as part of their own countries.
There’s reason to think they didn’t write these apologies themselves. Without fail, in every one of their apologies you can find the words “respect” and “China’s national sovereignty”.
Japanese fashion designer Jun Takahashi had hit gold when Nike agreed to release a line of sneakers he’d designed. But when he took to social media to talk about Hong Kong, it cost him nearly everything.
In earlier days of the protest, Takahashi took to Instagram to share a picture of the protestors with the words: “No extradition to China” overtop. The Chinese media was furious, and Chinese citizens took to Weibo to declare they would never buy Takahashi’s products again.
Chinese retailers refused to sell his products and, soon, Nike outright cancelled his line across the nation.
Takahashi’s company, bowing to Chinese pressure, censored his post distanced themselves from what he has to say, calling it nothing more than an “individual opinion.”
On October 6, a professional video game player from Hong Kong called Blitzchung put on a gas mask during a live stream and said: “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!”
The hosts who’d been interviewing him got so nervous that they literally hid under the table—but even that wasn’t enough to save them. Blizzard—who earned more than a billion dollars from the Asia Pacific region in 2018—banned both Blitzchung and the hosts who’d interviewed him. They even took away the $3,000 in prize money he’d already earned.
Game companies around the world got nervous. An e-sports companies sent out a memo telling its employees not to talk about Hong Kong, while some hosts became so nervous that they started referring to the e-sports team “Hong Kong Attitude” as “HKA” on the air.
Blizzard, for their part, has come out insisting that their “relationships in China had no influence on [their] decision” to ban Blitzchung. But Blitzchung and the hosts alike are still being suspended for 6 months—and, as a result, will lose their source of livelihood for half a year.
South Park went out of their way to get censored by China. In the wake of all of this controversy, they released an episode called “Band in China” that covered everything from Chinese re-education camps and executions to American companies censoring themselves on China’s behalf.
After all of this, that shouldn’t come as a surprise that China banned the episode—but what is shocking is just how far China has taken this. Simply liking South Park has been enough to get people in trouble. The musician Zedd claims that, after liking one of their tweets, he received a notice telling him he was “permanently banned” from China.
It’s just another way the Chinese government has tried to extend their censorship beyond their own borders. But China only has as much as people choose to give it, and, in this case, the creators haven’t backed down.
South Park responded with a tongue-in-cheek faux-apology that read: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom,” then, in the next episode (which you can watch here), had one of their characters outright say: “F*** the Chinese government.”
And in the streets of Hong Kong, protestors set up a projector and screened the banned episode for the whole city to see.
About The Author: Mark Oliver is a regular contributor to Listverse. His writing also appears on a number of other sites, including The Onion’s StarWipe and Cracked.com. His website is regularly updated with everything he writes.