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Multinational companies can’t be woke in the US and silent in China anymore

Black Lives Matter
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Pick your battles.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In the weeks since protests swept across the US and other countries over the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who suffocated under the knee of a white police officer, a long list of companies have taken a stand against police brutality. But as they scramble to voice their support for the fight against racial inequality in America, an inconvenient truth has surfaced: The same companies are keeping quiet on injustice in other countries, especially when it comes to China.

Take Apple, for instance.

Apple CEO Tim Cook published a note last month on racism in the US and launched a $100 million initiative to promote racial equality, following in the steps of Amazon, Facebook and TikTok.

“This is a moment when many people may want nothing more than a return to normalcy, or to a status quo that is only comfortable if we avert our gaze from injustice,” wrote Cook, saying that Apple was committed to “creating a better, more just world for everyone.”

Critics were quick to point out silence from Apple and other companies on social injustices in China, for example on Beijing’s policy of mass detention of its Uyghur Muslims or with respect to the protests in Hong Kong.

Jane Manchun Wong, a Hong Kong-based reverse engineering analyst, referenced Apple’s removal of, a crowd-sourced map that showed locations of protesters and police in Hong Kong. Apple said it removed the app because it could be used in ways that could endanger law enforcement and residents, but many viewed the move as caving in response to a threatening editorial in the Communist Party’s official newspaper. “In order to maintain their operations in China, it would be in Apple’s best interests to ignore the values they champion to the US market,” Wong told Quartz.

Apple did not reply to a request for comment.

In fact, company after company has apologized to China for falling afoul of its worldview, or made other moves that appear to comply with the Communist Party’s suppression of free speech.

Last year, the US apparel brand Vans, for example, removed an entry inspired by Hong Kong protesters from its annual shoe design competition, and after it faced a backlash, insisted that “as a brand that is open to everyone, we have never taken a political position.”

Less than a year later, the company took a position, supporting the Black Lives Matter campaign on social media and pledging solidarity with the Black community.

Meanwhile, TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, said it shared “the pain our country is in” amid anti-racism protests in the US and appeared to allow more political expression to trend on the platform, including videos related to Black Lives Matter. But in response to the new national security law in Hong Kong, TikTok now greets its users there with the message it’s no longer available for them. Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version used mainly in mainland China, censors topics like the Uyghur camps in Xinjiang and Hong Kong’s protests.

“The ‘outspokenness’ in the US and the ‘lack of voices’ in China are both the combination of [companies’] respective marketing, public relations, and government relations strategies,” said Chauncey Jung, a China internet columnist who has worked for a number of Chinese tech companies. “Instead of seeing that as how these corporations define their values, it is more about how these corporations intend to maximize their profits in two drastically different markets.”

Closing the gap

Marketing experts feel having two such different policies is no longer tenable in a world where it’s become a lot easier for consumers to contrast what companies are saying to different audiences.

“Consumers are more likely to be eager to align themselves with brands who clearly share their values than a decade ago,” says Andrea Fryrear, author of Mastering Marketing Agility. “Major pivots from market to market will appear inauthentic, like brands are pandering, and the interconnectedness of the world means this kind of behavior won’t go unnoticed.”

While there may be some logic to companies speaking more strongly on some problems than on others—most corporations that have strongly denounced racial inequality are also headquartered in the US—companies with global operations don’t get a free pass on this, argues Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch, pointing to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that says the responsibility to “respect human rights applies to all enterprises regardless of their size, sector, operational context, ownership and structure.”

“Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights that exists independently of a state’s ability or willingness to fulfill its own human rights obligations,” said Wang.

In such contexts, the UN principles hold that businesses have to seek ways to “honor the principles of internationally recognized human rights when faced with conflicting requirements” and make sure they don’t contribute to rights violations. Tech companies have in the past attempted to navigate these competing obligations by publishing transparency reports detailing app take-down requests from global governments, as well as listing the names of their suppliers for rights groups to examine the work conditions of their foreign manufacturing workers.

But amid increasing tensions between the US and China, and greater scrutiny of Beijing’s moves as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the protests in Hong Kong, the lack of appetite among corporations about taking a stand on oppression in their biggest market outside the US has become more glaring.

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.”

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.