For too long, policy makers ignored the possibility that China could transform the U.S., rather than the other way around.
From the late 19th century up to World War II, Americans were seized by the idea of transforming China into a Christian, capitalist America on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
The word plastic pops up again and again in American statements about China from that era. China is “plastic” in the hands of “strong and capable Westerners,” announced President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. “China has become plastic after centuries of rigid conventionalism,” declared Selskar M. Gunn, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in May 1933.
But from the beginning, Americans were also afraid that China—or the Chinese—would change them, too. In 1870, following the Civil War, Congress limited naturalization to white people and black people. Later, the United States tried to inoculate itself against the influence of the Chinese by banning many of them from America’s shores. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the U.S. Congress passed a series of racist immigration laws which would not be significantly modified until World War II, when China was an ally in America’s fight against Japan. It looked bad for the U.S. to deny Chinese the right to travel in America while Chinese under American command were dying on Asian battlefields.
Then came the Cold War, and instead of changing China, Americans sought to quarantine it. Fear of China in the United States was at a fever pitch in the years following the Korean War as Chinese were portrayed in American films, magazines, and books as possessing magical powers to brainwash average Americans. U.S. economic and diplomatic sanctions on China were far more onerous than they were on the Soviet Union. After a while, the impracticability of such isolation became pretty obvious. Even Frank Sinatra weighed in during an interview with Playboy magazine in 1963, calling for “Red China” to be given a seat in the United Nations. “I don’t happen to think you can kick 800,000,000 Chinese under the rug and simply pretend that they don’t exist,” Sinatra declared.
In the 1970s, when the United States reopened its relations with China, the pendulum swung back again. Americans reached into their toolkit and, surprise, pulled out the same tool they had used before: The U.S. launched a second campaign to remake China in its image. On January 24, 1980, Congress granted most-favored-nation trading status to the Communist regime, cutting tariffs on Chinese goods to the same rate offered to America’s friends and allies. MFN status had been reserved for countries with free-market economies and basic political and civil rights, including the right to emigrate. In 1980, China met none of these criteria.
Although there was probably a good geopolitical argument to make for granting China MFN status, the Carter administration was compelled to justify its decision by appealing to America’s idea of its higher purpose in China. Beijing deserved MFN status because, Americans were told, China was on an unstoppable march to a market economy with free and fair elections. As Representative Bill Alexander, a Jimmy Carter supporter from Arkansas, told the House the day MFN status was approved, “Seeds of democracy are growing in China.”
This paternalistic attitude that we could change China persisted, in its second instantiation, for about 40 years. Significantly, this idea’s evil twin—a fear of China changing us—became less pronounced. American certainty that influence ran down a one-way street appeared in statements from the National Security Council and the State Department, which, no matter the political party or administration, were littered with expressions such as “shaping” or “managing” China’s rise. This self-confidence loomed large in the debate over China’s admittance to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Robert Rubin, secretary of the Treasury under President Bill Clinton, told Congress that China’s accession to the WTO would “sow the seeds of freedom for China’s 1.2 billion citizens.”
I heard this mantra—China is becoming a normal nation! China wants the same thing as us! We are changing China!— nonstop during the decades I spent in China from American diplomats, positive that we would turn China into a more liberal country, and blithe to any worries that China could transform us.
So now we come to the brouhaha over an October 4 tweet by the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Underlying the firestorm caused by one opinion from one guy in Houston is a broader worry that what America considered its historical mission in China—bringing free-ish markets that would lead to freer people—has failed. But not only that.
Even as policy makers fret that China’s government immunized itself from the baleful influence of Western values, they see that it has begun to turn the tables and is exporting its ideology around the world. In short, China has begun to shape and manage us, not the other way around.
When Morey sent out a tweet that included an image saying, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” China’s government girded itself for a battle with the National Basketball Association. State-owned television and the Chinese internet giant Tencent suspended broadcasts of preseason NBA games. A slew of Chinese companies announced that they were putting sponsorships with the league on hold. China Central Television issued a statement calling for severe limits on freedom of speech. And Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggested that he expected the NBA to follow the playbook of other corporations and kowtow. “The NBA has been in cooperation with China for many years,” he said at a briefing last week. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”
The NBA’s playbook mirrored that of other organizations that have gotten sidewise with Beijing. Initially it waffled. Then NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put out a statement supporting Morey’s freedom of speech. But in its Chinese-language statements, the NBA sounded significantly more apologetic than in its English ones. This is a tried-and-true formula. The Chinese language is the first level of encryption. Who cares if you sound spineless in Chinese when you’re stalwart in English? What’s worse, other leading voices in the NBA sought to muddy Silver’s message. The prominent NBA coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr dodged questions on the issue. Rockets stars James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who make a considerable amount of money in China through the sales of merchandise and shoes, announced on Twitter: “We apologize. We love China.” On Sunday, LeBron James said he thought Morey wasn’t “educated” on the situation.
But even the NBA’s half-hearted nod to Western values is more than most international corporations can muster. When it comes to dealing with China, the league is the exception that is validating concerns about China’s growing ability to do to the developed world what the developed world has failed to do to China.
One reason that the NBA is different, of course, is that unlike normal businesses, where China can play competitors off one another, no one can vie with the league. Especially not the alternative, which in China’s case would be the Chinese Basketball Association. Despite massive investments and the fact that the CBA is now led by former Rockets’ star Yao Ming, the CBA is a joke, proffering bad basketball in arenas with no heat. China’s national team, which is composed of CBA all-stars, might not even make it to the 2022 Tokyo Olympics after its dismal showing at the FIBA World Cup over the summer.
For a clearer picture of the influence China wields, look no further than a ruckus that unspooled simultaneously with the NBA imbroglio. Last Sunday, Activision Blizzard, an e-gaming company, banned a professional Hearthstone player from the game’s lucrative pro league for a year and forced him to forfeit $10,000 after he said, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” in an interview about his tournament wins. Chung Ng Wai, who uses the handle “Blitzchung,” also donned a mask, which has become a symbol of the protests, before he was hustled from the podium. (Blizzard later said it would reduce the one-year suspension to a six-month one, and that it would restore the prize money.)
What’s stunning, or pathetic, is that Activision Blizzard made this decision—citing “damages to the company’s image”—on its own, apparently without direction from Beijing, an indication that the firm, like many others, has internalized Chinese values. Activision Blizzard makes a lot of money in China, where gaming has become a national pastime for a generation of young men. Blizzard has a partnership with the Chinese tech company NetEase, and Tencent owns 5 percent of its parent company.
Blizzard Activision is just one of many corporations that have bent to Chinese whims, perceived or otherwise, in recent years. Corporate heavyweights such as Marriott, Cathay Pacific, Muji, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, United Airlines, Swarovski, Mercedes Benz, Gap, Apple, Google, and Leica have all been targeted by either the Chinese Communist Party or by Chinese netizens for perceived slights. And slight they were indeed. Last week, Tiffany & Co. killed an ad that showed the Chinese model Sun Feifei wearing a Tiffany ring on her right hand, which covered her right eye. Chinese netizens claimed the advertisement could be interpreted as showing support for Hong Kong’s protesters, many of whom hide their faces with masks. Go figure.
Responses by multinationals to China’s wrath have resulted in real-world consequences for innocent workers. In March 2018, Marriott International fired a low-level social-media employee from Omaha after he “liked” a tweet about Tibet that offended the Chinese government. In September, Cathay’s CEO, Rupert Hogg, resigned because China opposed how Cathay had handled its employees who participated in demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Hollywood, ground zero of China’s success at managing the developed world, has not released one major movie with a Chinese villain since 1997. In one film, the 2012 dud Red Dawn, editors actually swapped out Chinese baddies for North Koreans in post-production.
Although Facebook remains banned in China, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has been craven in his efforts to return Facebook to the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party. Zuckerberg has pulled publicity stunts such as jogging through thick smog on Tiananmen Square. He has learned broken Chinese. At a White House dinner in 2015, Zuckerberg even had the gumption to ask Chinese President Xi Jinping to give an honorary Chinese name to his unborn child. Xi turned him down. The one big U.S. tech company that has stayed in the China market has been LinkedIn; the price has been aggressive censoring of speech.
As for Google: For years, it worked hard to grow its business in China. But following a series of hacks that targeted political dissidents who used Gmail, Google left the country in 2010. Still, the lure of the China market proved so irresistible that Google’s management launched a secret program called Project Dragonfly to create a censored search engine for China. Only after protests did Google shelve the program. Wasn’t Google’s motto “Don’t be evil”?
In April 1868, a delegation of Chinese officials visited the United States. Among them was a Manchu mandarin named Zhigang who one of the first Chinese travelogues describing a visit to the West. Zhigang wrote reams on American shipbuilding, steel mills, microscopes, and printing presses. Zhigang also had an insight about the resilience of American values that his successors in Beijing understand today. In America, he noted, “the love of God is less real than the love of profit.” Or as the straight-shooting Jason Whitlock said on the Fox Sports show Speak for Yourself the other day, “Quit faking the funk … When China tells you to shut the hell up, everybody shuts the hell up. Everybody loses their courage when there’s money on the line.”
John Pomfret was the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post from 1997 to 2003 and is the author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.