This will be remembered as a week when a lot of American corporations suddenly realized they needed a China policy. The big tech platforms, much as they like to consider themselves neutral, are no exception.
It started in the NBA, where a now-deleted tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey prompted an outcry from the Chinese government and some awkward backpedaling by league officials. After catching blowback stateside for its efforts to appease China, the league eventually stood up for Morey’s right to speak freely, which in turn triggered Chinese companies to cancel the broadcasts of a pair of upcoming preseason games. China is a key growth market for the NBA, like many American entities, and the league has a streaming deal with Chinese internet giant Tencent, owner of WeChat.
The NBA isn’t a tech company, of course, but the controversy might not have happened without Twitter, which hosted both Morey’s tweet and a pro-China backlash to the tweet that appears to have been largely generated by bots rather than real people. (Twitter is blocked in mainland China, but there is evidence that the Chinese government has used the platform to spread propaganda targeting the Hong Kong protesters in the past.)
Meanwhile, tech analyst Ben Thompson notes in his Stratechery newsletter that the Chinese-owned social network TikTok appears to have begun hiding Houston Rockets-related content. (Searches on TikTok for the Chinese characters corresponding to the Houston Rockets turned up no basketball-related results, he reported, while searches for other teams still worked.) If true, this would not be the first time TikTok has appeared to censor posts related to the Hong Kong protests.
We’ve grown used to Americans getting fired for social media posts that offend other Americans. Now it’s clear they can also be punished for posts that offend China.