Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Chinese Censorship Is Going Global

Beijing is not content to stop stifling free speech at the water’s edge. Western companies and institutions must put liberty before profits.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
Protesters shout slogans as they hold flyers in Hong Kong on October 15, 2019, during a rally in support of NBA basketball Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
Protesters shout slogans as they hold flyers in Hong Kong on October 15, 2019, during a rally in support of NBA basketball Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

In late September, the businessman Bill Browder received an unusual alert from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office. Browder, an activist who champions sanctions against government officials complicit in human rights abuses in Russia and around the world, was warned not to travel to countries that honor extradition treaties with Hong Kong. The places he was warded off from included democracies such as South Africa and Portugal. British officials told the activist that, under the terms of a 2020 Hong Kong law, Browder could risk arrest, extradition, trial, and even punishment by the Chinese regime. Browder’s ostensible crime in such a scenario would be his public call for Britain to push back against human rights abuses in Hong Kong.

The ominous warning to Browder comes amid a quickening pattern of Chinese influence over free speech in the West. Two LinkedIn users recently reported that their accounts were disabled by the Microsoft-owned platform, apparently because they spotlighted work on human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. After coming under pressure from rights groups, LinkedIn announced it would close down its service on the mainland due to concerns over free expression, offering Chinese users a stripped-down version of the networking site without social media features. Just this week Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter’s outspoken support for a free Tibet prompted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to pull the team’s games from Chinese television.

In September, the Lithuanian government advised its officials to stop using Chinese-manufactured phones after discovering they were pre-programmed to censor 449 words or phrases considered objectionable by Beijing. That same week it was revealed that community newspapers in Australia serving Chinese speakers were printing censored stories. News articles sent to China for verbatim translation were being quietly scrubbed of criticism of Beijing.

In late September, the businessman Bill Browder received an unusual alert from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office. Browder, an activist who champions sanctions against government officials complicit in human rights abuses in Russia and around the world, was warned not to travel to countries that honor extradition treaties with Hong Kong. The places he was warded off from included democracies such as South Africa and Portugal. British officials told the activist that, under the terms of a 2020 Hong Kong law, Browder could risk arrest, extradition, trial, and even punishment by the Chinese regime. Browder’s ostensible crime in such a scenario would be his public call for Britain to push back against human rights abuses in Hong Kong.

The ominous warning to Browder comes amid a quickening pattern of Chinese influence over free speech in the West. Two LinkedIn users recently reported that their accounts were disabled by the Microsoft-owned platform, apparently because they spotlighted work on human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region. After coming under pressure from rights groups, LinkedIn announced it would close down its service on the mainland due to concerns over free expression, offering Chinese users a stripped-down version of the networking site without social media features. Just this week Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter’s outspoken support for a free Tibet prompted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to pull the team’s games from Chinese television.

In September, the Lithuanian government advised its officials to stop using Chinese-manufactured phones after discovering they were pre-programmed to censor 449 words or phrases considered objectionable by Beijing. That same week it was revealed that community newspapers in Australia serving Chinese speakers were printing censored stories. News articles sent to China for verbatim translation were being quietly scrubbed of criticism of Beijing.

As the United States and its allies confront the challenge of rising global authoritarianism, they must come to grips with one of its most insidious dimensions: the growing reach of the world’s most powerful autocracy deep inside Western societies. China’s global rise depends upon the world’s readiness to do business with it. That has put a premium on its international reputation. Increasingly, therefore, the CCP sees its continued reign as dependent not only on its long-standing practice of severely restricting speech inside China but also on dictating global narratives about China. Its rulers also fear that critiques that germinate abroad could seep through cracks in the Great Firewall and foster domestic instability.The CCP sees its continued reign as dependent not only on its long-standing practice of severely restricting speech inside China but also on dictating global narratives about China.

China is now flexing its powers to impose censorship, of hard and soft varieties, beyond its own borders. The new Hong Kong national security law, the basis for Britain’s admonition to Browder, provides for the indictment of anyone, anywhere, for speech seen as inimical to Chinese security interests. China’s diktats affect sports, Hollywood, the publishing world, media and journalism outlets, higher education, tech and social media companies, and more.

As Chinese interest in American basketball has skyrocketed in recent years, the industry has come under pressure to put Beijing’s sensibilities ahead of freedom of speech. Two years ago when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong, he was forced to apologize. When the National Basketball Association deemed his comments “regrettable” the groveling triggered bipartisan outrage on Capitol Hill. As of this writing, the NBA has been silent in response to Kanter’s criticism of rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang and it’s unclear whether and when Celtics games may reappear on the Chinese streaming platform Tencent.

Hollywood filmmakers know well that access to the world’s largest film market is determined by Beijing authorities which, under the terms of the country’s 2016 Film Industry Promotion Law, favor portrayals that “transmit the glorious Chinese culture or promote core socialist values.”

Directors and actors associated with such films as Seven Years in Tibet that depict China unfavorably have been frozen out professionally and, in some cases, have resorted to obsequious apologies to revive their careers. By contrast, action films with Chinese heroes and plotlines that flatter Beijing have won privileged slots for broad theatrical release, making as much as hundreds of millions of dollars on the mainland. The result is an acquiescent, anticipatory, even subconscious form of self-censorship whereby U.S. filmmakers have internalized Chinese taboos and rewards as integral to their success.

With China now, by some measures, the world’s largest book market, Western publishers and booksellers are facing growing incentives to suppress critical narratives and instead feature titles that bootlick Beijing. When Germany’s Thalia bookstore chain suddenly gave prominent shelf space to displaying the writings of Chinese President Xi Jinping, it turned out a German subsidiary of the CCP’s global publishing arm had curated the promotion. There are other documented instances of publishers in Australia, England, and Germany coming under direct pressure from the CCP or engaging in anticipatory self-censorship to appease Beijing.

Journalists have seen this up close as well. In 2020, China expelled the largest number of foreign journalists since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, including many from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. That left just several dozen American reporters inside China, a group that has been subject to harassment, visa denials, surveillance, and severe access restrictions. Last year it was revealed that Bloomberg, the parent company of Bloomberg News, went to great lengths to muzzle journalists and their families regarding the company’s efforts to suppress reporting on Chinese government corruption.

Executives feared the exposes could compromise their lucrative mainland financial terminal business. Beijing’s ability to draw a curtain around itself by constricting access to Western news outlets and incentivizing them to avoid critical coverage risks blind spots and misjudgments, clouding Western audiences’ view of China and its economy at a critical time.

China’s influence on Western higher education has implications for scientific research, technology, and understanding of China. China scholars in the West face knotty dilemmas over whether to withhold criticism or risk forfeiting visa access necessary to carry out their work. U.S. scholars have endured state-supported harassment for advocating the rights of Chinese minorities. Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes on Western campuses have been widely accused of stifling open inquiry on China-related subjects.

A third of all foreign students studying in the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic were Chinese, filling university tuition coffers. The CCP’s close ties to the families of many students who are wealthy enough to study abroad incentivizes campuses reliant Chinese tuition-payers to avoid subjects or statements that might jeopardize this revenue stream. Chinese students studying in Australia report being under direct surveillance as well as dealing with informal systems whereby peers intimidate and harass those who deviate from a pro-Beijing line.

In Britain, former Universities Minister Jo Johnson (brother of Prime Minister Boris Johnson) led a study published in March that concluded that China had replaced the United States as the primary research partner for U.K. universities, raising a host of free expression and national security challenges that were scarcely being recognized, much less managed.

Although many U.S. internet platforms are blocked in China or have opted to withdraw to avoid overt censorship, Chinese influence over Western tech firms is increasing.

Although many U.S. internet platforms are blocked in China or have opted to withdraw to avoid overt censorship, Chinese influence over Western tech firms is increasing. As economic pressures to engage with China grow, companies such as Facebook and Google have explored plans to open new, censored social media and internet services on the mainland. Apple has opted to compromise app services, data privacy, and user protection measures to sustain access to Chinese markets. Apple’s Chinese app store blocks Western news outlets, organizing apps, and information about topics, including the Dalai Lama, that are censored by Beijing.

Even companies that do not offer their services within China may accept Chinese advertising revenue, including from government sources. Some analysts suggest that Facebook may earn as much as $5 billion annually in China, with employees raising concerns about how that revenue is influencing content moderation decisions relating to Chinese sensitivities, including the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Earlier this month, Twitter was accused of suspending accounts belonging to a Canadian publisher who had put out books critical of the CCP.

Mounting a response to these incursions is not easy. Creeping Chinese censorship doesn’t fit neatly into a single policy box. It implicates human rights, trade, education, intelligence, media freedom, national security, and more. Many of the encroachments, moreover, implicate private institutions and corporations on sensitive questions of content, viewpoint, and ideology, areas where governments should—and legally must—hesitate to tread.

Compounding the problem are the unmistakable dangers of overreaction. Ham-handed approaches could feed Red Scare-style paranoia, xenophobia toward Chinese people, and bigotry toward individuals of Asian descent. Broad clampdowns could chill people-to-people relations at a time when human and cultural ties represent a potential counterweight to geopolitical tensions. Beijing’s deep reach and sway over nearly every type of Chinese corporation and institution poses complicated questions of how to foster productive relationships with Chinese professional peers while avoiding the government’s heavy thumb.

These are reasons for prudence in addressing China’s creeping censorship. They must not be grounds to ignore the problem—or acquiesce to it. Recent incidents including LinkedIn’s pullback from China and the relocation of a Harvard University language program from Beijing to Taiwan may signal that the trade-offs for private institutions are becoming more difficult, making a reckoning over how to handle engagement with Chinese censors ripe.

The Biden administration in the United States and other Western governments should mobilize a three-pronged approach to meeting these challenges. A key step is to better understand Beijing’s aims and methods. Governments, universities, and private foundations should invest in research—both government-sponsored and independent—to unmask and publicize Beijing’s octopus-like reach into so many Western industries and institutions.

A parallel effort should mobilize leaders of conscience within the myriad corporations, industry associations, universities, arts institutions, publishers, and media outlets that grapple with Beijing’s impingements on the freedoms that underpin these institutions. As long as those in decision-making positions are not called out and forced to consider the long-term implications of hewing to Beijing’s line, they will continue business as usual, seduced by China’s markets and money.

A third front must unite Western governments and democracies that share a sovereign interest in preventing Beijing’s growing sway over thought and expression in their countries. Economic officials should analyze how trade rules and regimens can be invoked to challenge certain Chinese censorship practices as nontariff barriers to free trade. Standards and guidelines should be developed to spell out when the normal give-and-take among business partners, donors and grantees, vendors, and regulators crosses over into government coerciveness.

Officials from agencies responsible for telecommunications, scientific research, technology, higher education, and other sectors should coordinate to develop measured policies that can mitigate risk without inflaming tensions or hobbling the ability of Western institutions and corporations to compete.

Confronting mounting authoritarianism worldwide is a task that must begin at home.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.