Will international companies take on Chinese censorship after the pandemic?

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The legacy of the coronavirus in the country where it all began is likely to continue long after the virus itself has been dealt with. The Chinese government may have seen some pushback from its citizens on how it initially managed information surrounding the outbreak, but at the end of the crisis it might find itself with even more control over how information is disseminated within its borders.

“Beijing is trying to balance a tightening of social control in the interest of public health, and a loosening of social control to promote economic growth. Loosening social control means encouraging companies and people to go back to work,” said William Callahan, a professor of international relations at LSE.

“However, China is unlikely to loosen its control over censorship – even for international companies like Apple – to promote economic activity.

“From what we’ve seen, Beijing is using the coronavirus crisis to build and enforce a more intense surveillance and control regime. This goes beyond censorship to produce and promote ‘positive news’ about China’s efforts to fight the pandemic, alongside ‘negative news’ that criticises how Italy, the USA and other countries deal with it.”

Aynne Kokos, assistant professor at the department of media studies, University of Virginia, said: “I think there will be a slight loosening of inbound investment restrictions to support economic recovery. However, all indications suggest that the information environment will actually be more tightly controlled.”

“Whether or not the coronavirus dents China’s image depends on how successfully other countries respond as well as what happens when people in China return to work,” she said

Christina Maags, lecturer in Chinese politics at SOAS, University of London, said:

“While the Chinese economy is suffering losses, it is also multi-national companies like Apple who are eager to find a quick solution so as to stop the delay in production and resulting negative impact on supply chains worldwide. Therefore, I think Xi and multinational companies both have interests in “reviving” the Chinese economy.”

The world can only wait to see whether China will be more desperate to encourage economic activity after the coronavirus outbreak, or things stay the same. However, the importance that the authorities have placed on managing the message has led to dozens of prominent brands issuing public apologies in China over recent years, a sign of how powerful the Chinese government has become. Household names incurring the wrath of the Chinese authorities range from Disney, for featuring a Tibetan monk in an animation (the screenwriter later changed the character to a white woman after acknowledging the company “risked alienating a billion people” who did not recognise Tibet as a place), to gaming group Red Candle, which included artwork comparing President Xi Jinping with Winnie the Pooh in one of its games (Xi is known to take offence to such comparisons). Meanwhile, catwalk brands Versace and Givenchy felt the need to say sorry for recognising Taiwan as a country.

China’s influence over foreign companies seeking access to its consumer market has been growing over the past few years. But those who trade freedom for profit risk reputational damage among consumers who care about the consequences of reneging on free speech.

“The Chinese government has become more aggressive in getting foreign companies to comply with whatever foreign demands they have and silencing people,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By caving into the Chinese demands you are putting your values [aside] – social responsibility, freedom. It is really corrosive. You are affecting the global freedom of speech.”

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Companies that comply with Chinese demands risk setting dangerous precedents and they make it easier for other national leaders to exact similar demands. Apple, which has come under fire for supporting the Chinese government during the Hong Kong protests, has recently been criticised in India after censoring its local Apple TV programmes, just as  freedom of speech and assembly is being threatened under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

During the coronavirus outbreak China has been doubling down on its censorship of online forums as it seeks to control narratives around the disease. On 31 December, a day after doctors tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus, YY, a live-streaming platform, added 45 words to its blacklist, according to Citizen Lab. WeChat, a messaging app with a billion users, also censored coronavirus-related content.

Censored material included references to Li Wenliang, a doctor who had been silenced by police for trying to warn about theoutbreak, and neutral references to efforts on handling the outbreak.

The death of Li started a digital uprising (#WeWantFreedomOfSpeech), with people calling for online censorship to be lifted.

Kevin Latham, senior lecturer in social anthropology at the SOAS, University of London, China Institute, said: “The narrative on censorship has shifted over the weeks a bit. At the beginning it was clear they were much more open and quicker to act publicly than with Sars in the past – they appeared to have learned that lesson.

“However, once the story about the death of Li Wenliang came out, that narrative was undermined to some degree.”

There is little reason to expect things to change, in other words.

What’s the story so far? Apple blocks more than 370 apps in China, according to Chinese security experts Great Fire, including the virtual proxy networks that allow people to vault over firewalls. The company has failed to lift restrictions despite renewed pressure arising during the pandemic. Its decision to block a map app used by protesters in Hong Kong, taken a few months before, was also called out by critics.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook has defended the decision as borne of legal necessity.

“We would obviously rather not remove the apps but, like we do in other countries, we follow the law wherever we do business,” he said in 2017. “We strongly believe participating in markets and bringing benefits to customers is in the best interest of the folks there and in other countries as well.”

Wang said: “They say they are simply complying with local laws when we all know what they really care about is market access.”

Apple is not the only tech company criticised for capitulation. Last year, Google tried to build its own filtered search engine for China but the idea was scrapped following an outcry from its employees.

Jeremy Daum, a senior research scholar at Yale Law School, says that while strict laws do exist, many statutes are written in a vague and sweeping manner, so it can be hard to know what the legal obligations really are. “In some cases it can be as vague as not publishing content that harms the nation’s interests,” he said.

Daum highlights the importance of distinguishing between enforced censorship and corporate acquiescence.

“Complicity sounds like they share a common goal of censorship, [but] the companies’ goals are profit, so they are not complicit in motive – It’s acquiescence,” he said.

The challenges to the power dynamic will centre on China’s influence to change content coming from beyond its borders. Apple TV has already issued guidelines to its programme makers to avoid criticism of China.

Ultimately, harming freedom of expression hits society’s most vulnerable, and those with the weakest voices, the most.

“Censorship isn’t just about politics,” said Karen Reilly, a community director at GreatFire.org, which tracks censorship in China.

“Censorship blocks people from reaching their communities and this is especially harmful to marginalised and young people. Online spaces are sources of support. If you grow up with censorship, your connection to your own culture may be cut off.”


Additional research by Orna Herr and Adam Aiken

Charlotte Middlehurst is a London-based journalist specialising in Chinese current affairs. She tweets at @charmiddle


The piece is part of the 2020 spring issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Buy a copy or subscribe here.

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