American speech puts spotlight on Chinese censorship
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios
In less than 48 hours, three American companies in the business of mass entertainment have found themselves at the center of a political storm about China's aggressive censorship.
Why it matters: Media and entertainment have long acted as extensions of free speech with a mass reach, making them both vehicles for public expressions of controversial views and targets of government censorship.
Driving the news: Most visibly in the press, the National Basketball Association is currently facing the wrath of the Chinese government after a team's general manager expressed support for Hong Kong protesters and the league has refused to denounce him. But there's more:
- Video game company Activision Blizzard, which is partly owned by Chinese company Tencent, censored a professional player and rescinded his competition prize money after he expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters.
- The Chinese government also banned (and virtually scrubbed from its domestic internet) the animated show "South Park" after its latest episode criticized the country's censorship.
It's no surprise that Hollywood is treading carefully around the Chinese government given its large market's importance to Hollywood.
- Upsetting the Chinese government can impact U.S. film exports. China has blocked or delayed films in the past. Most recently, it delayed the release of "Crazy Rich Asians," which cut into revenues for Warner Bros.
In contrast: American companies have a history of bending to China's requests in the name of preserving their access to its market — but these usually related to censorship for Chinese customers, or other less visible requests.
- Last year, China forced Marriott and a number of airlines to explicitly list Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong as part of China and not separate nations.
- Even Apple, which famously sparred with the FBI over consumer privacy rights, has yielded to Chinese requests such as removing VPN apps and certain news apps from its local app store.
The big picture: This is all happening against the backdrop of an ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China.
- After months of back-and-forth over tariffs, the U.S. announced on Monday that it was blacklisting 28 Chinese companies — including its top facial recognition startups— for their role in human rights violations. The firms won't be able to do business in the U.S.
- On Tuesday, the U.S. said it would impose visa restrictions on Chinese government officials who are believed to be involved in the mass detention and surveillance of Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang province.
What's next: Some are calling for U.S. regulators to reconsider TikTok parent company Bytedance's acquisition of Musical.ly, the American short-video app it acquired in 2017 from growing fears it will censor American users in accordance with its political speech preferences.