China’s state-run Global Times newspaper defended the crackdown on foreign businesses perceived to be challenging Chinese territorial claims, no matter how inadvertently, by explaining that Western notions of free speech end at China’s border.
In essence, the Chinese paper argues that free speech must give way as Chinese and Western interests intersect because it is a Western notion that simply does not apply to China’s highly ordered society.
Beijing has been charged with interfering in the affairs of other nations by using its enormous leverage over international companies doing business within China to control what they say, not just to Chinese audiences but on web pages outside of China. The Global Times editorial argues that on the contrary, in matters of “Chinese sovereignty” such as expressing support for “Tibetan separatists” or independence-minded Taiwanese, China is the aggrieved party forced to act defensively against assaults upon its national integrity.
China’s Internet censors have demanded changes in a number of foreign corporate websites, but the most notorious case to date involved Marriott International—compelled to not only change website menus that referred to Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao as separate countries, but even fire one of its employees for retweeting a message from a Tibetan independence group.
The Global Times lashed out Monday at the Washington Post for calling Marriott’s decision to apologize for its website “pitiful” and described it as an example of “China’s use of economic coercion to curtail freedom of expression of private companies.”
The Chinese paper denounces this as a willful “misreading” of China’s position by Western elites who don’t understand the grave “risk of territory being separated.”
It was, in fact, a letter to the editors of the Washington Post that leveled this criticism. The letter was from C.C. Chen of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, DC. “This type of coercion looks just like another episode of deja vu for Taiwan, which has been put under tremendous pressure by China flexing its growing economic and military muscles,” Chen observed.
“For Western people who want to support Taiwan independence or Tibet independence, they can choose not to deal with China,” the Global Times warns ominously. “Ordinary Chinese cannot tolerate two-faced nations. As China gets a greater say and becomes more confident in global affairs, it will not tolerate any moves by the West to infringe upon its sovereignty.”
The editorial continues:
China didn’t intervene in the internal affairs of Western countries. Rather, it is opposed to Western interference into its own affairs. The Western elite has tried relentlessly to change the system of other countries, sometimes through non-democratic means. If the West continues to see China through rose-colored lens, its future relations with China will be a bumpy road.
This is a brash declaration of China’s “sharp power,” and a clear warning from the Chinese themselves that their authoritarianism is viral—it will infest every political system that interfaces with China, forcing changes to make them more compatible with Beijing’s ideology. Another of the Washington Post’s correspondents wondered, in a letter posted the same day as Chen’s, if Western businessmen will be willing to renounce their religions upon demand from Beijing in order to maintain their Chinese market shares.
It is a safe bet that China will be emboldened to demand more as it receives more concessions, reinforcing its belief that Western principles are all for sale. A regime so insecure that it fears retweets and website pull-down menus can redraw national boundaries will never run out of speech it wishes to curtail. The more Western companies give in to these demands—especially when they are tech companies with enormous influence on free speech in the Information Age—the more China’s principles will replace the Western understanding of inalienable rights as a matter of habit.