How Chinese Censorship is Affecting the West’s Freedom of Speech

It is no secret that China does not allow freedom of speech as we understand it in the West — or really anywhere else.

The country has set up an internet firewall to prevent its citizens from accessing popular western websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Slideshare. It also censors content appearing on its own approved social media outlets, and does not allow discussion on controversial topics such as Taiwan, Tibet and the treatment of minority religions such as Christianity and Islam.

However, what is not widely known is the fact that in today’s very connected world, China’s economic weight, coupled with its sensitivity to topics the government does not like, is impacting freedom of speech in Western nations.

Marriott International is a hospitality company that owns properties in over 120 countries and territories throughout the world. Even so, it cowered when an irate Chinese government pointed out that one of its surveys listed Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan as separate countries. The managing director of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office immediately apologized, stating the mistake was one of the biggest ones he had ever made in his career.

The CEO of Marriott International offered to issue an apology and, more alarmingly, froze all its social media activity around the world simply to placate the Chinese government. In addition, the company terminated its contract with the company that created the offensive survey and instituted an eight point “rectification plan” that would involve re-educating its employees around the world.

Marriott International is not the only company to apologize to the Chinese government out of this type of pressure. Audi incurred Beijing’s wrath recently when, at one of its meetings, it depicted a map of China that did not include Taiwan and parts of Tibet. International airliner Delta also apologized after it came to light that the airline listed Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Tibet as separate countries. Apple recently removed nearly 700 different apps from its Chinese store because the Chinese government demanded that it do so.

These companies’ actions are questionable at best; after all, a single country really should not have the power to tell dozens of international corporations what type of menus to put up or which products to sell. However, Marriott’s behavior is particularly alarming because it sets a new standard that the Chinese government may expect other companies to abide by in order to do business in China. Instead of simply apologizing, companies may soon be forced to police behavior of employees and subcontractors in other countries in order to remain in China’s profitable business market. The Chinese government could even demand that international companies not do business with certain other companies, or fire employees who are vocal about their disagreement with China’s policies.

Publishing companies and academic journals are also feeling the heat and many are caving into China’s international censorship demands. Professor Clive Hamilton, a prominent Australian academic, recently wrote a book about China’s use of economic blackmail in order to reach its goals. Unfortunately, the book remains unpublished because the Chinese government threatened to file a defamation suit against the publishing company.

The company, Allen & Unwin, immediately backed out of its publishing agreement, leaving Professor Hamilton to search for a new publisher for a book that will not even be published in China. Cambridge University Press censored more than three hundred online articles to avoid Chinese fury, only reversing the move after widespread outrage and calls for a boycott.

Springer Nature blocked more than one thousand articles based on keywords that could be offensive to the Chinese government, without regard for the fact that some articles on topics related to these keywords are in line with official Chinese positions on sensitive issues. What is more, the company does not even disclose on its website that certain articles are censored.

Freedom of speech is an integral human right; unfortunately, it is one that is all too easy to take for granted until it is gone. Western companies are discovering that the ability to do business in China comes with conditions that infringe of freedom of speech and association not only in China, but also in other countries. Sadly, corporate profits are taking priority over ethics as companies eagerly do China’s bidding in order to boost their bottom line or avoid trouble with China’s powerful government.

It is a sad state of affairs when a single country can dictate what citizens of other countries are able to say, publish or do in their own nations.

~ Liberty Planet


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