Stories

Corporate America's parochial morals

Illustration of an open briefcase with a halo inside, with a smaller one behind featuring devil horns
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's a double standard in corporate America.

What's happening: CEOs-turned-activists are experimenting with taking bold stances on social and political issues at home — but that activity stops at the nation's borders. It certainly doesn't reach as far as China.

Why it matters: The same companies that extol high-minded principles on U.S. soil are perfectly content to abide by every censorship rule set by the Chinese Communist Party — and are even happy to travel to Riyadh to butter up the murderous Saudi royal family.

  • Apple has been a leader on immigration in the U.S., going to bat for Dreamers. But it also removed the HKmap.live app from its app store after complaints from China, citing danger to Hong Kong’s police. Its latest iOS update caused the Taiwanese flag to disappear for users in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as anybody on the mainland.
  • Google has taken the same stance on Dreamers and on its app store. It was also caught building a censored search engine for China.
"China’s economic miracle hasn’t just failed to liberate Chinese people. It is also now routinely corrupting the rest of us outside of China."
— Farhad Manjoo writes in NYT Opinion

The list is almost endless. All three big U.S. airlines — American, United and Delta — bent to the party’s will last summer and scrubbed references to Taiwan; Marriott did likewise. Gap apologized for selling T-shirts with a map of China that didn't include Taiwan, saying its map was "incorrect." Even news organizations are treading carefully, if they're owned by Disney. Hollywood has long accepted China's censorship rules to rake in its profits.

Driving the news: American firms’ instinctive deference to Chinese autocrats was thrust into the national spotlight this week.

  • Basketball fans watched the NBA chide the Houston Rockets’ GM for tweeting — then deleting — a single image supporting Hong Kong protestors.
  • Sneakerheads watched Vans pull shoe designs that alluded to the Hong Kong movement from a global sneaker design contest.
  • Gamers watched Activision Blizzard — an American company in which Chinese tech giant Tencent has a 4.9% stake — suspend and take prize money from a Hong Kong-based player who publicly supported the protests.

One level deeper: Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is based in Massachusetts, boasts of its "strong global citizenship practices." But, it has also supplied the Chinese government with DNA sequencers that are being used to collect the DNA of Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

The bottom line: For all that CEOs increasingly talk of their "moral duty to speak up," those moral duties seem to be left on the tarmac whenever they hop on their corporate jet.

Go deeper: China's vise grip on corporate America