Chinese censorship is no longer just a China problem

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This story is part of an ongoing series on how China is reshaping our world.

The broad strokes of censorship in China are common knowledge. Everyone understands that, online, Chinese people can’t speak freely. That Hollywood films released in China may be altered for the local audience. That political activism is essentially not allowed.

But over the past week or two, the world began to wake up to the fact that China’s censorship machine is now a global phenomenon. What academics, commentators, filmmakers, musicians, celebrities, and even institutions say outside of China is increasingly modified by the gravitational pull of the Chinese government and Chinese consumers.

What brought this to the fore was a fairly innocuous tweet from Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, by some accounts the most popular NBA team in China: “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” was all Morey said.

The tweet was immediately deleted and the NBA’s PR machine spun up to try to limit the damage. Even so, China’s state-run TV channel CCTV canceled its agreement to show preseason games. Private companies responded, too: Tencent, a Chinese internet giant, said it wouldn’t stream the games, either (though it has now resumed doing so).

There are dozens more examples like this. A non-Chinese public figure or institution says something that, in what has become a cliche at this point, “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.” Soon after, the perpetrator releases an effusive apology that says things like “We have always supported the one-China policy and continue to uphold Chinese territorial sovereignty” (McDonald’s) or “we love China and resolutely respect the sovereignty of its territory” (Versace).

Why are Americans having to apologize for tweeting tacit support of a non-violent, pro-democracy movement being repressed by an authoritarian regime?

That is the question posed in the latest episode of Because China, our series about how China is reshaping the world. The heavy hand of the Chinese government is part of the answer, but only part. To really understand what’s going on, we talk to experts and a banned-in-China cantopop star to show how, in China, a culture of hard-line nationalism has combined with growing social media and consumer activism—as well as international companies’ growing reliance on Chinese consumers—to create a situation where even an off-hand mention of “freedom” can “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”