Pressure on corporations to square their values across markets is coming not only from employees or consumers, but a generation of investors driving ethics-based investing. When London-based HSBC, which gets a large share of its revenues from Hong Kong, expressed support for the territory’s new national security law after facing pressure from Beijing, one of the bank’s major shareholders criticized it. Aviva Investors, a global asset management firm that is a leading shareholder in the bank, said it was “uneasy” about the bank’s backing for a law it knew little about.

HSBC said at the time that it respects laws “that will enable HK to recover and rebuild the economy and… maintain the principle of ‘one country two systems.’” But the language of the law, published only after it was passed, makes it clear that it will overhaul the freedoms that distinguished the territory from mainland China, and severely diminish its autonomy.

“Being everything to everyone isn’t just impossible in 2020, “said Fryrear. “It’s deeply problematic, because companies will wind up contorting themselves to fit dozens of different scenarios.”

Image for article titled Multinational companies can’t be woke in the US and silent in China anymore

A backlash against dropping blackface

Yet, promoting values that are consistent—standing up for equality in hiring, communications and marketing from whether in the US or in China—isn’t always easy. One major hurdle is different expectations of the “right” values to  advocate in different markets.

Last month, after Quaker Oats announced it would rebrand the Aunt Jemima pancake syrup, long criticized for its imagery, Colgate said it would rebrand one of Asia’s best selling toothpastes—and accidentally waded into a culture war in China. The Darlie brand, whose Chinese name, heiren yaogao, literally means “Black person toothpaste,” is sold with a smiling image of a man in a top hat that is reversed blackface. It was called Darkie toothpaste prior to 1989.

The proposal angered many internet users in China, and spurred a massive online discussion with people calling the change an “American-style speech crime,” and threatening to boycott the rebranded toothpaste. In China, there is a long-running conviction that antiracism and political correctness is a conspiracy of the baizuo, a derogatory term used to describe “white liberal elites” on the Chinese internet. The term “speech crimes” is also a reference to the traumatic Cultural Revolution, a social movement that persecuted numerous intellectuals in China in the 1960s, and which is evoked by some to claim campaigns like Black Lives Matter will limit speech—even though China has already imposed blanket censorship online itself.

Then there’s the fact that defying China’s expectations of businesses often comes with losing market access. The NBA faced such a challenge last year, when the league had to choose between upholding its expressed values and the lucrative $4 billion China market after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protesters. Although the league was criticized for apologizing excessively in its Chinese statement over the tweet, it resisted pressure from Beijing and the Chinese public to fire or discipline Morey, and emphasized its belief in free speech. It incurred major financial losses in China over its stance.

Nevertheless, in markets where certain values are not widely accepted or understood in the same way, especially with regard to color, race, gender and sexual orientation, companies can still find nuanced ways to promote these values, said Wang from Human Rights Watch. Wang used a Chinese advertisement from cosmetics brand SK-II, whose parent is Procter & Gamble, as a good example.

The ad centered on so-called “leftover women,” a derogatory term coined by Chinese media for single women above the age of 27. Featuring touching testimonies from “leftover” women who confessed their insecurities and also spoke about their full lives with pride, the commercial was praised for its empowering depiction of single women in China, who are facing rising pressure from the state to get married and start families as the country’s working age population declines.

It’s one thing to have subtle alterations in different markets, in the way that a person might “act differently when they talk to friends, family members, or when they attend parties,” says David Ryan Polgar, a technology ethicist and a member of TikTok’s Content Advisory Council, an external group advising the platform on its content moderation policies in US. But it’s increasingly important for multinational companies to be fairly consistent in upholding their fundamental values no matter where they operate. That’s especially true for tech and social media firms, he says, given the vital role they play in fostering personal expression.

“If a company’s operations in China run counter to its values, or deeply held beliefs such as free speech stated to US users, then the situation will become troublesome for the company,” said Polgar.

📬 Sign up for the Daily Brief

Our free, fast, and fun briefing on the global economy, delivered every weekday morning.