Economics, recent, World Affairs

Corporate Subservience to China Exposes the Hypocrisy of Woke Capitalism

China’s suppression of political dissent within its borders is old news. But more recently, the Chinese government has managed to project its power across the world—and even into the heart of an iconic American business sector: professional basketball.

Daryl Morey Tweet

The saga began when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey—a well-known figure within the National Basketball Association (NBA)—Tweeted support for ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Chinese consulate in Houston signaled its displeasure, with a statement indicating that it had “lodged representations and expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets, and urged the latter to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”

Morey seemed to receive the message. He hastily deleted his Tweet. But the NBA—which is the most popular sports league in China—paid a price anyway. A series of NBA events in China were abruptly canceled, and a number of firms suspended co-operation with the Rockets.

Two days following Morey’s Tweet, the NBA released an official statement distancing itself from the Rockets GM, lamenting that Morey’s pro-democracy statement has “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.” The league insisted that it has “great respect for the history and culture of China.” Putting aside the fact that Morey hadn’t criticized China’s “history and culture,” the statement seemed bewildering: How did it come to be that a multi-billion-dollar American sports league was apologizing to the Communist Party of China?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver soon shifted into damage control mode, this time in the opposite direction, and insisted that the “NBA will not put itself into a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners will say or will not say on these issues.” Yet many of the NBA’s stars have been reluctant to back up Morey, who now has gone silent on the issue. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a frequent and unrelenting critic of U.S. President Donald Trump, certainly didn’t seem too bothered by Chinese human-rights abuses when asked about them at a press event. “It has not come up in terms of people asking me about it, people discussing it, no,” he said.

Kerr shifted into cultural relativism: “Nor has our record of human rights abuses up either. You know, things that our country needs to look at and resolve, that hasn’t come up ether. So none of us are perfect. And we all have different issues that we have to get to.” He then went on to mention American mass shootings—as if the actions of criminals could be compared with those of a government.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the best NBA players in league history and a big-hearted philanthropist, also has no problem criticizing Trump. But when asked about Morey’s Tweet, he accused his colleague of being ignorant, and adopted the language of social-justice activists who claim that even fairly banal political speech can cause harm. “I don’t want to get into a word or sentence feud with Daryl, with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and spoke,” James proclaimed. “And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet, what we say, and what we do, even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”

(On Monday, James even seemed to present himself as the victim, Tweeting, “my team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others. And I believe nobody stopped and considered what would happen. Could have waited a week to send it.”)

But while the NBA has attracted enormous attention for kowtowing to Beijing, it isn’t alone. Activision Blizzard, the digital studio that has produced such popular videogames as Overwatch, Call of Duty and Starcraft, punished a player who, during a livestream, expressed support for Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing protests. The company brags about its approach to diversity and inclusion—but these values apparently do not extend to the Hong Kong teens being tear-gassed, or to the Uighur Muslims being imprisoned in Xinjiang province.

One Blizzard employee told Vice News that people in the company feels trapped: “We’re damned if we don’t take a stand—we’ll have lost a lot of support from fans outside of China. We’re damned if we do—you can’t keep the lights on when we lose income from China and [other companies] swoop in to take our place…Even if I did leave [for another employer], where would I go that’s not beholden to access or income from China today or tomorrow?”

That’s presumably the thinking behind Nike’s decision to remove merchandise featuring the Houston Rockets from stores in major Chinese cities. Yet this is the same company that recently built its brand around former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously failed to find work after taking a knee during the national anthem as a means to protest police brutality.

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” Kaepernick intoned in Nike commercials released in 2018. It turns out the company itself isn’t quite ready to sacrifice its Chinese business interests—let alone “everything.”

Indeed, it may soon be more difficult to find a major firm that isn’t censoring itself in some way to maintain business ties with China. At Mashable, Natasha Pinon has compiled a list of companies that have self-censored in response to Chinese pressure. They include Audi, which “used a China map at a press conference that excluded Taiwan, South Tibet, and parts of the Xinjiang region; then apologized for their ‘incorrect geographical map’”; Disney/ESPN (“An internal memo distributed to ESPN employees prohibits reference to Chinese politics when alluding to a supportive tweet for Hong Kong protesters”); and Mercedes-Benz (“posted an Instagram photo accompanied by a quote from the Dalai Lama, then deleted the post, and offered a public apology to the Chinese people”).

At one level, it makes a certain kind of sense that some of America’s wokest companies are bending over backwards to avoid offending a dictatorship: America’s supply chain is deeply interwoven with China’s industrial back office, and it’s a massive growth market that presents western executives with hundreds of millions of new customers. But we are also asked to pretend that our corporate overlords have a moral compass, and that their much-vaunted mission statements and corporate social-responsibility pledges are meaningful.

Take the example of Delta, the world’s second biggest airline. The Atlanta-based company has for years benefited from a lucrative jet-fuel subsidy provided by the state of Georgia, but lost access to those funds in 2015 after its leadership lobbied against a “religious freedom” bill that many feared would empower conservative Georgian businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Republican lawmakers were so offended by Delta’s stand that they ended the subsidy.

In 2018, lawmakers considered reviving the $40-million-a-year program. But Delta once again stepped into the culture wars, ending a discounted-fare contract for members of the National Rifle Association, a pro-gun-rights group. This act of virtue-signalling probably got Delta more than a few customers: Its Tweet announcing the policy change earned more than 470,000 likes. Yet Delta really wasn’t giving up very much: It apparently had sold only 13 tickets under the NRA contract.

The company made this announcement during a heated Republican gubernatorial primary, causing all of the candidates to come out against the subsidy, which died in the legislature, while Democrats in Georgia and elsewhere vigorously proclaimed that they’d be happy to subsidize Delta. Ultimately, the Republican Governor quietly restored the jet fuel subsidy, ensuring that Delta was able to have its cake and eat it, too.

Georgia’s taxpayers lost and Delta won, because the fight was never really about selling a few tickets to the NRA or religious freedom. It was always about money. And so it’s no surprise that this same company, which talked so tough to a state government, meekly apologized to China for listing Taiwan as an independent country on its website: Delta officials knew that their lobbyists didn’t have as much entrée in Beijing as they did in Atlanta.

China’s ability to make America’s biggest companies dance to its tune exposes woke capitalism as the sanctimonious scam that it is. Corporations don’t have intersectional ethics. They have bottom lines. In some cases, the two overlap—as when Delta bashed the NRA for brownie points. But often times, they don’t—as when Delta aroused Beijing’s ire over Taiwan. And remember that Nike, the same company that wants to save the world from police brutality, made its fortune in large part by peddling overpriced sneakers as status symbols for poor black teenagers.

In Hong Kong, Xianjang, Syria and elsewhere, protestors are risking everything to speak out against dictatorial regimes. The least we Westerners can do is express solidarity with them. While we cannot force corporations to join us, we can take stock of their cowardice. And when these same companies come back at us in a few months with some earnest new ad campaign built around a fashionable domestic social-justice cause, we should call them out on their bald-faced hypocrisy.


Zaid Jilani, a journalist, is currently on fellowship, studying political and social polarization at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter at @ZaidJilani.

Feature image: LeBron James, of the Los Angeles Lakers, can be seen on the promotional tour “More than an athlete.” Berlin, Germany. 02nd Sep, 2018.


  1. Left-wing people can’t be hypocrites.

    They are tribal. They are open about the fact that they are tribal. The thing about being tribal is, you don’t actually have any principles. You can’t. Your tribal loyalty must supersede any principle you claim to have.


    Tribes vs Principles is a key distinction in Left vs Right; a natural outgrowth of the Collectivism vs Individualism dichotomy that defines the two sides.

    To condemn the Left for siding with its tribe over its “principles” is redundant. Rather, what we should condemn is the very act of being left-wing at all: the preference of tribe over principle.

    One might think it could be simpler; just criticize them for lying about having principles! But honesty itself is a principle, and if you’re sufficiently devoted to your tribe, that principle is particularly easy to reject.

  2. I hope to see some NBA players take a knee during the playing of the Chinese National Anthem.

  3. @DSzczesniak, Who are you talking to? Your post was quite rude (“dumbass”?) and I’m sure counterproductive to whatever point you were trying to make.

  4. We live in a world that is drowning in marketed consciousness, where morality is just another demographic sectional interest tool for accessing a market segment.

    ‘Woke Capitalism’ is just another name for ‘Indulgence Capitalism’ that plays to its prospective customers whatever ideological tune that customer niche wants to hear, as part of its ‘buying experience’. And as long as that tune is vague and particularly a negative target is amorphous and external to the addressed and related market cohorts, there should not be a problem

    Generally the system cannot afford to tolerate dissonant intra market messaging that can conceivably even slightly offend significant and/or noisy constituencies/sectional interests within an existing customer cohort, unless that customer is a designated ideological fall guy/loser/declining cohort who can be used to further leverage new and more attractive markets.

    The problem with all this is that as the society becomes more ideologically divided, this becomes a much more dangerous game that can very easily spring nasty surprises, as McCain’s You’ve Done It Again’ might or might not find with its ‘What’s A Family?’ ad.

    The Israel Folau case is one in point where Rugby Australia gets exquisitely caught between the gay mafia led by Qantas and the outraged religious freedom lobby (and their secular supporters) who had to stop taking donations after raking in two million dollars in less than 24 hours. No matter how it works out, that case is going to be a hideous one for Rugby Australia, especially if Folau wins and other players follow his lead.

    The transgender lobby attempt to muscle in on female sport will come back to bite quite a few sport peak bodies and woke companies sponsoring it, once the ladies (50% of the population) drop their shocked silence and opt for very angry resistance, like refusing to compete with them…

    The Hong Kong support fiasco in the US has all the the same hallmarks for disaster, because no one can afford to offend the Chinese anymore, whatever the offensiveness of their political colours or practices. We are ineluctably in bed with them now and there’s no going back. Period. They have got us by the commercial short and curlies. Get used to it. That isn’t hypocrisy so much as realism about how much we now depend on them…and their goodwill.

    Bye bye political purity…Suck it up.

  5. I remember a non-profit board discussion on “branding” back when that first became a corporate fad. Roughly speaking the goal was to promote your brand instead of promoting your product or service. Once your goal shifts from providing a quality product or service to your public image it is only a short stroll to the virtue signaling nonsense we see now.

    Also part of the proper corporate image was to be seen as authentic. Hopefully the population will soon wisen to the understanding that virtue signaling and wokeness are the polar opposites of authenticity.

  6. It has to be said yet again apparently.

    Athletes and celebrities are nearly all extremely oblivious to the real world, intellectually lacking in some way, and often have lower than average IQ, empathy, and social awareness. A lot of them are actual criminals. Hollywood and sports leagues are plagued by rapists, women abusers, racists, thieves, pedophiles, dog torturers, murderers and other trash. Do not emulate or support them in any way. Lebron James is just yet another clown who can run fast, shoot baskets, and wants to make as much money as he possibly can. He does not care about human rights, politics, or anything else. His “inspirational tweets” are hypocritical lies, as seen with his latest comments. Other celebrities who claim to care about causes like global warming like to fly private jets by themselves and own a dozen yachts while telling regular citizens to change their lifestyles. Celebrities and athletes are just there to regurgitate media talking points and defend corporate interests while talking down to ordinary citizens that are much MUCH smarter than them.

    If celebrities actively take a wrong or immoral stance like Lebron James did, boycott them and the league/organization they’re involved them. If they commit crimes, boycott them and the league they’re involved with. If they don’t do anything wrong, then applaud their efforts in their job (like their athletic or acting skills), but don’t consider them smart people outside of their very limited set of skills or consider them role models.

  7. I’ve said it before and will do so again. The western companies’ kowtowing to Beijing is a symptom of a deeper, more malignant disease. The CCP is that disease.

    Now, the CCP is very vulnerable, more so than many other governments. Firstly, it relies on income from its own companies. There’s no reason that economic pressure can’t be brought down on them by western consumers. People fixated on the NBA or a games company aren’t seeing the real trouble maker. It’s like a person with lung cancer fretting over his persistent cough. Your cough isn’t going away until the cancer is removed. Further, those Chinese companies that aren’t state-owned still feed the state-owned ones, such as the banks. Secondly, the CCP has drummed it into its public’s head that it is solely responsible for China’s economic progress that has bettered their quality of life. Implicit in this we’re-responsible message is economic contraction due to a loss of business is also Beijing’s doing. Certainly, Beijing will attempt to spin this by stating it’s anti-Chinese consumer behaviour stoked by one state intelligence agency or another, but the Chinese are not as isolated as the North Koreans.

  8. The Hong Kong issue is not going away. Pooh will either cave (unlikely) or engage in wholesale slaughter. Such slaughter will be impossible for the wider world to ignore. It’s not utterly out of the question that we’re seeing the early stages of a Berlin wall kind of thing. Also Trump’s tariffs are chipping away at that wall.

    May you live in interesting times.

  9. It’s not going away, lest not for a lack of Hongkies’ interest and enthusiasm - these protests are as strong as ever. Even though Xi is safe knowing he has rule for life, Beijing has been more patient than I expected. I think it is more due to the PR disaster it would be overseas with the knock-on economic consequences at home. I suspect it is waiting for protestors to commit a heinous error that leads to the deaths and injuries of several people other than police to serve as the justification to send in the troops. Masses of emotional, young people throwing Molotov cocktails are prone to make mistakes - it’s a question of when and not if. And some in the western media have been carrying Beijing’s water by amplifying protestors violent actions whilst omitting or downplaying those by police.

  10. I don’t follow.

    I don’t like it when I see the right calling on the NBA to speak up on China, any more than the way the left demands the same for social justice issues. However, pointing out the hypocrisy should not just be considered tribal.

    We all know the Chinese government is doing some truly terrible things right now on a massive scale. The NBA’s popular personalities have no problem criticizing the US of comparatively minor issues (but still tragic in some cases), using the rights that are granted to them as US citizens, while saying nothing about China. That’s it. It’s pure hypocrisy and they should be called out for it.

    If they were talking about some right-wing issue constantly, and also giving China a pass, then it would be just as hypocritical.

    Lets not pretend that companies being “woke” isn’t damaging to the US either. We are extremely divided and more and more we are not political rivals but enemies.

  11. Almost everyone who comments here has in the past been rather left of center. Mostly we’re apostate lefties; “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Darkness at Noon” and all that.

  12. DOK, thanks for the feedback, but you must be referencing another thread, because, at least in this one, I make no reference to government at all.

    My general position is that modern democracies are commercial oligarchies with just enough democratic features to make them marketable as ‘democratic’. All the internal discourse within these democracies is now some version of Publicrelationsmarketingspeak, and has been since the corporatocracy first openly flexed its muscle with the ALP in 1975, by orchestrating a ‘democratic’ coup.

    Everyone now uses the tobacco lobby playbook from the fossil fuel lobby to Getup and the gay mafia.

    You may have noticed that the Conservative Tory government in the UK has absolutely no problem with recognizing and dealing with the prospect of anthropogenic climate change by going for broke with renewable energy and the comprehensive electrification of transport and the energy grid. They do not have a significant fossil fuel constituency. The coal industry had to be shut down in the '80s and North Sea gas is running out.

    Australia has a huge coal and gas fossil fuel industry that has massively leveraged the climate change denial industry and its political catspaws in the coalition, with the result that the low carbon agenda in Australia has been brought to a juddering halt. And it spends massively to make sure that mainstream public constituencies continue see it their way, both during and between elections. Ditto in the US.

    What I found most interesting about Oreskes and Conways book, ‘The Merchants of Doubt’, was not so much about how a small cabal of science mercenaries have managed for decades to obfuscate sugar and tobacco health effects, and climate science, but the enormous resources that were martialled behind them to spread their message throughout the architecture of discourse, in the form of thousands of bogus blog/‘news’ sites across all media platforms from the traditional press to FB/Twitter et al.

    When you start to look a bit harder at western democracies, the formal democratic institutional structures and operations are just the tip of the iceberg. 90% of what goes on is, if not completely invisible, opaque.

    The fossil fuel/mining interests in Australia are very concerned to keep an ALP/Greens coalition out of power because they fear not their sexual/racial identity politics, but their energy/environment agenda. Their interventions during the last federal election were massive, which is why we got the bizarrely ‘unexpected’ Scomo victory. And what that tells us is that ‘A Drover’s Dog’ with that kind of backing could have won.

    Unsurprisingly, coalition energy and environment policy is written for it by ‘The Green Mafia’ down at the Institute of Public Affairs, which is an extremely high powered mouthpiece for the Minerals Council…

    Modern constituencies are now so well trained that they will buy bottled water at 4,000 times the price of tap. They can be sold almost anything if you press the right buttons hard and long enough. Selling ‘harmless’ tobacco, ‘climate alarmism’, ‘marriage equality’ and transgenderism is a cinch, as long as the system lasts…which may not be for much longer; you know, sustainability…

    Hope that helps. Regards Christopher N

  13. Are you suggesting that to behave virtuously, Walmart must avoid jeopardizing anyone else’s business?

    You can expect a corporation to act according to your virtues, but that pressure is to come solely from your choices as a consumer.

  14. Firstly, are people as moral as you suppose? Presumably some are, but I suspect many, if not most, suffer from many moral failings.

    Further, even amongst genuinely moral people, there is divergence in what is deemed moral. I reckon some participants in a Pride Parade consider themselves to be moral to the consternation of some members of several religious communities and vice versa.

    Secondly, you mention corporations. Is this a catch all for all businesses or is it as you wrote? If the latter, then I have to wonder why non corporate businesses, which are the great majority, are not included in your plea for moral behaviour.

    Moreover, are corporations as immoral as you imply? We hold corporations to a standard of investigating and monitoring their suppliers for compliance of this and that. Yet, do we demand the same of consumers? If I hire some fella to care for my garden and he employs illegal alien labour that’s underpaid and forced to work 16 hours per day seven days per week, is that my moral failing? If I dine in a restaurant that uses debt-bondage labour, is that my moral failing? If I purchase goods containing components made by unethical manufacturers dumping all kinds of toxic waste in a river overseas, is that my moral failing?

    When I’ve posed these questions to the activist types, they’re usually waved away as individuals don’t have the time, resources, whatever to make such decisions. Yet, this is true for many businesses as well. Firms with fewer than 100 workers account for 98.2 per cent of employers in the US. Firms with fewer than 20 workers make up 89.0 per cent. I doubt they have the resources to hire employees to sit overseas with their varied and often changing suppliers to monitor compliance, and given the laundry list to comply with, this may require several monitors of specialist knowledge in workplace safety, environmental protection, etc. What happens then is businesses, often the very large corporations, are coerced to hire some activist organisation to perform the monitoring for them. I reckon the activists know they won’t earn much by shaking down individual consumers and small businesses. Moreover, attacking corporations is less risky than attacking individuals for the failings of their own consumption choices.

    On the flip side, I’ve read sweeping generalisations made accusing every Chinese company of employing “slaves”. Surely some employers are quite nasty, but every employer? C’mon. Is it a moral failing to use such ill informed generations to impugn all for the abuses of some?

  15. God help you when there’s a natural disaster like a drought or flood that wipes out the crops and kills the livestock in your local area. “I’ll just import from other areas then.” If those producers too have been adhering to your localism pitch, presumably they’ve been producing for their own local communities exclusively. Why produce an excess to be unconsumed and left to rot because the other localists who, like you, don’t want it as well?

    And does your localism apply to the local production of vehicles, appliances, pharmaceuticals, clothes, and most other goods? You think rural western Nebraska can sustain ten pharmaceutical companies, a few dozen textile mills and garment manufacturers, a half dozen TV and refrigerator plants, and three automakers?

    Toss economies of scale right out the window along with quality of life, lifespan, and many other things.

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