China, not Russia, is the Threat
Communists are buying businesses and political influence
(NPR) - It used to be that the Communist Party focused on censoring free speech primarily inside of China. In recent years, though, China's authoritarian government has tried to censor speech beyond its borders, inside liberal democracies, when speech contradicts the party's line on highly sensitive political issues, such as the status of Tibet and Taiwan. It's part of the party's grand strategy to change the way the world talks about China.
The Chinese government has been so effective at intimidating Western businesses on this front that sometimes companies do the party's work for it. That's what happened in London this summer at an obscure soccer tournament modeled on the World Cup. The teams were drawn from a hodgepodge of minority peoples, isolated territories and would-be nations, including Tibet
Some potential corporate sponsors were queasy.
"There were inquiries made as to whether we would consider removing Tibet from the competition," said Paul Watson, commercial director for the Confederation of Independent Football Associations, or CONIFA, which ran the tournament. Watson spoke with one potential sponsor who was apologetic but direct.
"Look, I took this to my boss," Watson recalled the sponsor telling him. "It's Tibet. Can you get them out of there? I'm really sorry. It's a terrible thing to ask. We love what you do, but would you remove Tibet?"
Watson refused to dump the Tibetans, which he said cost CONIFA more than $100,000 in sponsorship money. Watson said no one from the Chinese government ever approached him, but they didn't have to, because the sponsors already knew the risks.
Tibet is a part of China, but many Tibetans hate Chinese rule and believe the government is trying to destroy Tibetan spiritual and cultural identity, not only at home, but also abroad. Potential sponsors were worried about offending Beijing because they'd already seen how other companies were punished when they didn't follow China's official line. In January, authorities suspended Marriott's Chinese website after the hotel group mistakenly referred to Tibet, Hong Kong and Macau as countries. The next month, Mercedes-Benz was forced to apologize for quoting the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, on Instagram.
"Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open," the quote read.
Watson said potential sponsors were terrified that if they backed the tournament, they'd be in a business meeting in China a few months later, staring at a photo of their company's logo next to Tibetan soccer players and the Tibetan flag.
"It could be a deal-breaker," Watson said.
Last year, the Durham University students' union organized a debate on whether China was a threat to the West. Tom Harwood, then president of the union, said the school's Chinese Students and Scholars Association complained about the topic and pressed him to drop one of the speakers, Anastasia Lin, a former Miss World Canada. Lin is also a human rights activist and a practitioner of Falun Gong, a spiritual meditation group banned by the Chinese government.
"Actually, it got to the point where the [Chinese] embassy phoned up our office and started questioning us a lot about the debate, asking if we could not invite Anastasia Lin," Harwood recalled. "It even got to the point where one of the officials at the embassy suggested that if this debate went ahead, the U.K. might get less favorable trade terms after Brexit."
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