China Is Forcing Tech Companies to Choose Between Profits and Free Speech

Apple and Blizzard have been pulled into a political struggle, and the platforms are part of the playing field

This will be remembered as a week when a lot of American corporations suddenly realized they needed a China policy. The big tech platforms, much as they like to consider themselves neutral, are no exception.

It started in the NBA, where a now-deleted tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey prompted an outcry from the Chinese government and some awkward backpedaling by league officials. After catching blowback stateside for its efforts to appease China, the league eventually stood up for Morey’s right to speak freely, which in turn triggered Chinese companies to cancel the broadcasts of a pair of upcoming preseason games. Like many American entities, China is a key growth market for the NBA, and the league has a streaming deal with Chinese Internet giant Tencent, owner of WeChat.

Two of Twitter’s trending topics in the United States on Tuesday concerned the Hong Kong protests and the free-speech controversies surrounding them.

The NBA isn’t a tech company, of course, but the controversy might not have happened without Twitter, which hosted both Morey’s tweet and a pro-China backlash to the tweet that appears to have been largely generated by bots rather than real people. (Twitter is blocked in mainland China, but there is evidence that the Chinese government has used the platform to spread propaganda targeting the Hong Kong protesters in the past.)

Meanwhile, tech analyst Ben Thompson notes in his Stratechery newsletter that the Chinese-owned social network TikTok appears to have begun hiding Houston Rockets-related content. (Searches on TikTok for the Chinese characters corresponding to the Houston Rockets turned up no basketball-related results, he reported, while searches for other teams still worked.) If true, this would not be the first time TikTok has appeared to censor posts related to the Hong Kong protests.

We’ve grown used to Americans getting fired for social media posts that offend other Americans. Now it’s clear they can also be punished for posts that offend China.

Another shoe dropped on Tuesday, when the gaming company Blizzard Entertainment, a division of California-based Activision Blizzard, suspended Ng Wai Chung, an e-sports star who plays under the handle Blitzchung, from a major competition called Hearthstone Grandmasters. His offense: Wearing protest gear and calling out a Hong Kong protest slogan on an official Hearthstone broadcast, which was hosted on the Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch. (Blizzard said Blitzchung violated the Hearthstone rules against activities that offend portions of the public or damage the company’s image.) China represents a growing market for e-sports, and Tencent holds a 5 percent stake in Activision Blizzard.

Primed by the Morey affair, social media activists and U.S. politicians reacted swiftly: The hashtags #Blizzard and #BoycottBlizzard trended on TwItter throughout the day, and lawmakers from both parties denounced the company.

In both instances, the major U.S.-based tech platforms that hosted public figures’ Hong Kong comments — Twitter and Twitch — managed to avoid getting embroiled in the controversy themselves. That’s probably because both are already banned in China: Twitter since 2009, and Twitch since 2018. That gives China less leverage over them than it has over companies whose futures rely on the massive Chinese market. They can’t be pawns in the trade war if they aren’t trading in China to begin with.

Even so, it’s noteworthy that users of internet platforms that aren’t accessible within China are increasingly forced to watch what they say. This week Daryl Morey and Blitzchung faced professional consequences for political speech on U.S.-based platforms. Next week it could be, well, pretty much anyone with a public following. We’ve grown accustomed in recent years to Americans getting fired for social media posts that offend other Americans. Now it’s clear they can also face censure and discipline for social media posts that offend the Chinese government.

Like Twitter and Twitch, Google and Facebook are banned in China, though both have shown strong interest at times in gaining access to it, with the understanding that would require them to enforce speech restrictions. Microsoft has deeper roots in China, including a significant research office there that collaborates with Chinese institutions on A.I. projects. CEO Satya Nadella last week defended the company’s China presence, saying that cutting ties would hurt the cause of developing A.I. systems openly and ethically.

Among the big tech platforms, China is perhaps most important to Apple: The company both manufactures and sells its devices there, and the Chinese market is the linchpin of its growth plan. When Apple warned of slowing China sales in January, its stock took its steepest drop in six years.

Last week, Apple’s App Store rejected a Hong Kong map app that protesters can use to track the location of police, among other things. According to tweets from the app’s developer, HKmap.live, Apple cited a policy against apps that help users break the law. Some tech critics accused Apple of coddling China, though it was not immediately clear whether China had actually applied any pressure. On Tuesday, Apple reversed its decision and approved the app — drawing immediate criticism from China’s state-run media. It’s now clear the app very much does affect Apple’s relationship with China. Exactly how China might retaliate, if at all, is not clear, but in the past it has withheld regulatory approvals, and there have been rumblings that it could suspend Apple’s operations altogether if the U.S. company doesn’t toe the line on its territorial claims.

Meanwhile, Apple on Monday apparently removed the Taiwanese flag emoji from the keyboard in an update of iOS for users in Hong Kong and Macau. The move, which Apple did not announce or acknowledge in its release notes for the update, seems geared toward appeasing the Chinese government, though there has been no confirmation that was the case.

Even smaller tech platforms have become battlegrounds for China’s political debates. The BBC reported last-week on a long-running Wikipedia struggle over the page for Taiwan, which claims independence as a state but is claimed by China as a territory. At stake is not only the Wikipedia entry, but services that rely on it: Google and Siri have unwittingly flip-flopped on their answers to the question, “What is Taiwan?”, which reflect the duelling edits. The BBC story’s author predicted that smaller platforms will soon find themselves overmatched in these sorts of information campaigns, which even the largest companies, such as Facebook, have struggled to contain.

How these tensions will play out over time is hard to predict. It’s been a long time since a world power other than the United States had the amount of global influence that China is beginning to exert. The United States’ new predicament should be plenty familiar, however, to countries around the world that have been under American sway for decades. Those include China, whose own mobile giant Huawei has been battered by U.S. policies.

What’s clear after this week is that, for major U.S. platforms, there is no longer such a thing as neutrality when it comes to Chinese politics. Either they quash speech that offends the Chinese government, or they risk offending the Chinese government themselves.

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