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Corporate wokeness keeps falling short when it comes to China

Tsai speaks during an in Hangzhou
Reuters/John Ruwitch
Weigh your words carefully.
  • Tripti Lahiri
By Tripti Lahiri

Asia bureau chief


It happens time and time again.

Business leaders are increasingly comfortable expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters’ demands for systemic change, as well as the fight against police brutality in the US—yet they fall silent or even take a seemingly opposite stance when it comes to human rights in China.

It happened last year, when companies such as Apple and TikTok, whose parent Bytedance is based in China, issued strong statements in support of racial equality protests, but didn’t do so for the mass detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or police brutality and freedom of assembly in Hong Kong. And it happened this year, when companies like H&M and Adidas pivoted to nebulous stances on forced labor in Xinjiang after receiving backlash in China for their previously less nebulous stances.

That same pattern was in play again this week, when Alibaba co-founder and vice chairman Joe Tsai, also the owner of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box program on June 15. Host Andrew Ross Sorkin asked Tsai how he saw his position as the owner of a team at at a time when many business leaders are grappling with their role in promoting social justice. Tsai responded:

So, one thing that I realize when you own a sports team is it’s larger than a sports team. It’s a social institution, you’re doing it for the fans, you’re doing it for the broader population. I’m really glad we’re situated in Brooklyn because we have the best fans in the world and having this building, you know, Barclays Center here kind of fortuitously, we have this square or plaza in front of us with some empty space. So then, this became a location for people to gather and focus on whatever social cause that they want to focus on. This building has been the site of for us to hand out food, in cooperation with food banks. It’s been the site of vaccinations, it’s been the site of voting. And obviously with the last year after the George Floyd incident, people protested for social justice against racism and I think that’s very, very important and seeing all this happen organically in front of Barclays Center, that was great. I felt very, very good about it.

Tsai also spoke about the importance of drawing attention to rising hate crimes in the US and elsewhere against Asian-Americans as a result of the pandemic:

So, this happened more than a year ago actually, you know, I started to notice sort of rising anti-Asian sentiment because of Covid. Everybody thinks that Covid came from China and therefore, you know, as a Chinese person, I kind of felt it personally….So, a group of us, Asian Americans got together, we formed the Asian American Foundation and one of the problems that we’re trying to solve, right, if you look at the Asian American community in America, everybody’s okay with Asian Americans as long as things are going well. If the economy as well, the Asian Americans play by the rules, prosper together with everybody else, that’s fine. But if there’s a crisis, if there’s a pandemic, there’s a war, or there’s an economic downturn, Asian Americans get scapegoated. And just look at history, right, back in the 1800s, they banned Chinese immigrants coming into America and during World War II, when America was at war with Japan, they actually in turn put 120,000 American citizens that of Japanese descent into concentration camps.

Then the conversation turned to China. Here, Tsai deflected a question on human rights abuses, saying, “…the China that I see the, the large number of the population, I’m talking about 80%, 90% of the population are very, very happy.”

Sorkin also asked about Hong Kong, where political dissent has been stifled under a national security law passed last year. Tsai staunchly defended the law, alluding to China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, beginning around when Hong Kong become a British territory:

…What is this for? It’s against sedition, it’s against people that advocate splitting up Hong Kong as a separate country. These are things that are not allowed. You know why? Because Hong Kong used to be a colony, you know, a few hundred years ago, China lost Hong Kong to the Brits because of the Opium War. The British wanted to sell opium into China and as a result of some battles, China had to carve up Hong Kong, gave it up. This is a very scarring kind of history of China having foreign powers come in and carve up your territories. So if you put yourself in the Chinese people’s mindset, you know, if you’re a Chinese citizen, I look at this history, I want to make sure that we prevent foreign powers from carving up our territories. I think Hong Kong ought to be seen in that context, you know, I think there’s a lot of criticism of the democratic freedoms or freedoms of speech is being suppressed. But overall, since they instituted the national security law, everything is now stabilized. In 2019, when people were protesting on the streets, I was actually afraid to walk onto the street. You know why? Because I speak Mandarin and they were targeting every person that spoke Mandarin because they would assume that you come from the mainland.

It’s true that as the Hong Kong protests wore on, some protesters did turn to violence in pitched battles with police. At one low point, a reporter for a Chinese state-run tabloid was assaulted by protesters believing him to be an undercover officer in a widely criticized incident at Hong Kong’s airport. But such attacks on people were rare, and for the most part protesters directed their ire and frustration at sites like shuttered subway station entrances. And far more common were masses of largely peaceful protesters, weekend after weekend, joining hands in a human chain, or singing a de facto Hong Kong anthem at a mall. Also common: a string of assaults on pro-democracy activists and frequent instances of police brutality, including one incident when police chased citizens into a subway station and beat train passengers.

Since Hong Kong’s national security law was brought in, songs and slogans associated with the democracy movement have been outlawed, the most prominent democracy activists are on trial, or have left, and and opposition voices have been barred from already circumscribed elections. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has said there is no separation of powers, a prominent newsroom was raided and its publisher arrested, and new police rules redefined who is considered a journalist. A teenager was charged with violating the national security law, an activist was charged with sedition for chanting anti-government slogans, and Beijing unilaterally engineered the expulsion of four democratically elected opposition lawmakers. This month, Hong Kong was not allowed to hold its annual Tiananmen protest vigil for the second year in a row. In other words, the quiet prevailing on the streets of Hong Kong today isn’t peace; it’s repression.

But then, companies—and therefore their leaders—usually say what they think their audiences want to hear. Corporations weren’t as vocal on US racial equality when they didn’t perceive the issue to be as important to their audience—consumers—and employees as it is today. And when it comes to the topic of Hong Kong, executives like Tsai have only one audience that they must make sure not to displease: the Communist Party of China. Alibaba, as he says in the interview, has 90% of its business in China. The group, and particularly fintech giant Ant, have been facing a tough regulatory crackdown since November, in the wake of outspoken remarks by Alibaba founder Jack Ma criticizing China’s approach to financial regulation.

Meanwhile, the public outcry in the US over the treatment of Hong Kong has faded from the zenith it reached in October 2019, when China put pressure on the NBA after the Houston Rockets’ then manager tweeted in support of the Hong Kong democracy campaign. Conversely, consumers in China have been quite vocal on what they don’t want to hear from companies: expressions of support for Hong Kong or Xinjiang.

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