Sharp Power: How China Got an American Fired for Liking a Tweet

U.S. President Trump Visits China
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More details about the American employee of Marriott International who lost his job for violating China’s authoritarian speech codes are coming to light.

The Wall Street Journal revealed over the weekend that the man who lost his livelihood to China’s “sharp power” is a 49-year-old named Roy Jones. He was earning $14 an hour working the night shift at a social media job in Omaha, Nebraska, when he clicked “like” on a tweet and enraged the tyrants of Beijing.

The tweet in question came from a group called “Friends of Tibet,” which the Chinese government considers an unacceptable Tibetan separatist group. They were somewhat sarcastically thanking Marriott for listing Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as separate countries in a menu selection on one of their websites:

China launched a crackdown against international companies perceived as threatening its territorial claims by treating semi-autonomous and disputed areas as if they were independent countries, even if it was done in the most offhand and careless manner. Marriott was targeted for the very same website menu that pleased the Friends of Tibet. Jones using Marriott’s Twitter account to “like” the Friends of Tibet tweet was seen as a further insult.

The Chinese government took punitive action against Marriott by essentially shutting down reservations at its 300 hotels in China for a week. Marriott made fulsome apologies and promised to change the website that referred to Tibet and other areas as separate countries.

The most alarming twist in the story is that Chinese authorities ordered Marriott to “seriously deal with the people responsible.” The hotel chain obeyed by completely shutting down its social media accounts for a week—all of them, not just its accounts in China—and ultimately causing Jones to lose his job.

Jones said he did not understand the geopolitical context of the tweet he liked, and there were no company policies in place to guide him. He saw it as just one of hundreds of tweets he reviewed in a typical night’s work, his job being essentially to find posts that said nice things about Marriott International and hit “like” on them to build the company’s social media presence.

“I was completely unaware of what was going on. We were never trained in any of the social graces when it came to dealing with China,” he said.

“This job was all I had,” Jones said of his termination. “I’m at the age now where I don’t have many opportunities.”

The Wall Street Journal quoted Eric Goldman of the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University saying it was unusual for a company to single out a low-level individual and terminate them for an innocent mistake, rather than taking corporate responsibility.

“If this were his first strike, the employee is effectively a sacrifice to try to get Marriott back in the good graces of China,” Goldman said.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) noted the Wall Street Journal story on Jones and found it a troubling example of China’s viral authoritarianism:

There are two related but distinct phenomena to be worried about here. “Sharp power” is that unique Chinese concoction that lies halfway between the “soft power” of diplomatic persuasion and the “hard power” of military force. In short, China uses its economic and political muscle to compel foreign companies to do its bidding, buys off foreign politicians, and conducts online influence operations in other countries to arrange favorable policy outcomes.

“Viral authoritarianism” is the overall degeneration of Internet freedom to meet the lowest common denominator of speech controls and authoritarian demands. It is the perverse inversion of the long-cherished belief that contact with free societies liberalizes oppressive regimes—a process that was supposed to be enhanced by the Internet, not reversed by it.

Instead, Internet companies that do business with China come away with a Chinese outlook on speech control. International corporations are enforcing Chinese speech codes willingly, after a few painful object lessons in the cost of disobedience. Speech control enthusiasts in free societies are adopting the techniques of Chinese censors, with similar rationalizations that speech must be controlled in the name of social harmony. Other national governments and non-governmental activist organizations will demand the same deference companies are showing to China. A generation that views freedom of speech in decidedly Chinese terms is emerging from our university system.

Senator Rubio’s tweets encompass both sharp power and viral authoritarianism, demonstrating the connection between them. China is very serious about forcing Western companies to not merely obey its speech codes but internalize them. The next man or woman to sit at Roy Jones’ desk most likely will be provided with an elaborate policy manual on how to avoid offending Beijing’s sensibilities. Other corporations and individual employees will learn from the fearsome example set by his termination.

Gizmodo sees the Jones incident as evidence that China is learning to exploit the “cozy relationship” that Big Business invariably develops with Big Government:

Google, one of the few major U.S. firms who decided to leave China in 2010 after refusing to comply with its censorship laws, is already laying the groundwork for a return. Competitor Apple has used the opportunity to aggressively expand in China, complying with the new cybersecurity laws by moving encryption keys for Chinese iCloud users to Beijing in an attempt to not be shut out.

It is not just “big” business at risk, though. China has a veritable army of censors and volunteer speech vigilantes searching the Internet for speech code violations. Twitter is banned in China, but it did not take long for the Beijing thought police to get wind of the Friends of Tibet tweet and the “like” that cost Jones his job. China makes no pretense of limiting its authoritarian controls to websites and social media posts that Chinese citizens can actually see. Smaller companies will come under fire in the U.S. and elsewhere. Even if they do not do business in China, Beijing might be able to find leverage against them.

For example, in August 2016, CNBC posted a story about big companies that are “listening in” on social media conversations, searching the Internet for references to themselves and jumping in with tweets and Facebook posts to address customer complaints, applaud customers who speak well of the company, and respond quickly to social media trends. One hotel chain boasted of running a massive social media operation that might notice wedding photos posted from one of its properties and jump in with free champagne for the happy couple, engage with people who are talking about taking a vacation, and get its name associated in a positive way with celebrities and trending topics.

That hotel chain was Marriott International. Beijing has demonstrated it can give orders to Marriott and expect swift compliance. It is not absolute and total control of the company, mind you, but it does not have to be. China has learned how to play its cards carefully and give orders quietly once dominance has been established.

Controlling Marriott gives the Chinese Communist Party influence over many smaller companies that do business with it, such as the social media outfit Roy Jones used to work for. China has not just been lashing out in a fit of insecurity over the past few months, it is building a network of influence that will last for decades to come.

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