Kowtowing to China

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Kowtowing to China


Tom Coyner
The author is the CEO of Soft Landing Consulting.

As the old saying goes, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. That axiom seems to be underscored by two recent, seemingly unrelated events where freedom of thought and action have come under siege.

Recently, Leica Brazil’s advertising agency released a 5-minute video, “The Hunt,” that celebrates the risks that photojournalists take to deliver insights. While using snatches of photographic risk-taking, the short video centers around the creation of the iconic “Tank Man” photo, taken from a Beijing hotel window during the Tiananmen crackdown.

Beijing’s reaction to the video was immediate and severe. Besides censuring the video, Chinese authorities went too far to remove all references to Leica over China’s internet. Leica quickly put distance between itself and the video’s creators, the local ad agency F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi. Leica is now taking legal action against its long-time business partner for unauthorized use of its brand, despite the fact that “The Hunt” was a continuation of a series of product positioning videos produced by the agency. The point is obvious. China offers a huge market for Leica that the company is afraid of being excluded from.

Last week, an informal fund-raising dinner was held in support of Michael Spavor, a Canadian entrepreneur who was making a living by leveraging his deep understanding of North Korea and that nation’s business ties with China. In the wake of Canada arresting Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, Beijing authorities reciprocated by jailing two hapless Canadians. In the case of Mr. Spavor, the explanation for his detention is that he posed an unspecific national security risk. Ms. Meng’s father, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, says she is a “hostage” in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, given she is subject to extradition to the United States for her alleged role in violating trade sanctions against Iran.

Almost five months after Spavor’s arrest, the Canadian government continues with a very low-profile approach to handling the hostage-taking of its two citizens. That may be the best approach for a positive outcome, or it may be argued that Canada’s larger political and economic interests with China outweigh the risks of aggressively pressing Beijing authorities on behalf of two lone citizens.

The dinner’s guests shared impressions about Mr. Spavor. While his overall approach to making a livelihood was controversial, the overwhelming consensus was that Michael is well-meaning and remarkably positive about other people, regardless of their backgrounds. In other words, the Chinese picked on a powerless, hardly sinister individual. But of greater note among the dinner guests was concern to keep the event’s photographs and even guest names private. While most of the guests are professional North Korea watchers, their greater concern that evening was China.

Most of the dinner guests, as journalists and academics, need to visit China for information. To be put on a Chinese visa blacklist would be a major professional setback. So, while supporting Spavor, discretion was the word that evening. To put it more bluntly, potential Chinese retribution was an underlying anxiety. As such, Spavor’s supporters are self-censuring, since there is realistic skepticism as to whether clamoring for his release would be productive. Furthermore, by doing so, supporters may face Chinese blowback that could hurt their career.

Once again, even while trying to do the right thing, members of the truth-seeking professions of academia and journalism were minding their Ps and Qs, aware that anything that goes out on the internet is likely to be read by the Chinese.

During the evening I pointed out that everyone here thinks twice before taking on China. As a result, there is latent Chinese intimidation, resulting in self-censorship. So, I teased some of the Koreans at the event that Korea could in a sense already be under insidious Chinese control. The responses to my challenge were consistent, “Of course, not!” To which I replied, “So, how do you know?” No one could answer my rebuttal.

If we are to be brutally honest, matters have become just that sinister. If a German company is backing down over a Brazilian ad, the Koreans feel much more vulnerable. The Chinese with their giant and burgeoning market of goods and services, world-shaking news and academic incentives, need not lean hard.

All they have to do is make an occasional example. The rest of the globe quickly takes note. So, this is our real and present dilemma: Big Brother is already here thanks to the internet and a giant, expanding economy controlled by a thin-skinned autocracy. As George Orwell noted in “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” the power of the state largely rests in its potential for revenge.

As business professionals, academics, journalists or whatever, we can meekly accept this new reality of intimidation by a foreign power, or we can choose not to remain silent.
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