Great Wall of Silence

Photo: H&M Flagship store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: H&M Flagship store in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

China’s bullying tactics exploit our greed and cowardice.

Stalin’s Soviet Union preached communism at home. But it practiced capitalism abroad. It sold looted artworks, timber, and grain to Western countries, which mostly closed their eyes to the fact that this profitable trade stank of crime and lies, and was drenched in blood and tears.

The Chinese Communist Party adheres to Leninism as an effective doctrine of political organization, but it has dumped the unworkable ideas of Marxist economics. Instead, it practices capitalism, at home and abroad.

And just as in the 1930s, foreigners help. One-fifth of the world’s cotton comes from the western region that China calls Xinjiang (“New Frontier”). This is the occupied homeland of Uyghurs and other Muslim and Turkic minorities. They are trapped in a genocidal system of forced labor and mind control that would have impressed even the architects of the Soviet Gulag.

One result of this is that the world’s best-known clothing brands — Adidas, Burberry, H&M, and Nike — face a dilemma. Should they appease increasingly critical Western opinion by cleaning up their supply chains to avoid using any fiber of cotton tainted by this system? Or should they preserve their access to the world’s largest market by appeasing the Chinese Communist Party?

Most readers will struggle to see this as a dilemma at all. Few would these days reckon that it was right to supply Stalin’s Soviet Union with hard currency in exchange for exports produced by people — priests, dissidents, kulaks, and ethnic minorities — being worked to death in slave camps. Why is it so hard to shun the products of latter-day Stalinism, the racist, techno-dystopic, imperialist regime now running China?

One answer is that outrage about other people’s past misdeeds is easier than making personal moral decisions in the present. Corporate priorities are indeed changing when it comes to ending the use of fossil fuels, preserving the rainforest, or improving workplace diversity. But giving up the whole Chinese market, right now? That spells ruin, to a company — or to an executive’s career.

The Chinese Communist Party leadership knows this. It has ruthlessly squeezed the Western companies who have dared to respond to consumer pressure over blood-cotton. The H&M’s 500-plus outlets in China have become invisible on navigation and payment apps. Chinese celebrities have withdrawn their endorsements of the Swedish-owned company’s products. Landlords have canceled leases. As businesses in Hong Kong have found, staying quietly neutral is not enough. The Chinese authorities want public, groveling expressions of loyalty.

The immediate lesson of this is that Western businesses can no longer shelter behind platitudes such as “we don’t get involved in politics.” If you are doing business with China, politics gets involved in you.

This story is about power as well as morals. China is big. But the industrialized democracies are bigger. We, as consumers and investors, can use that. If boycotts in China hurt, boycotts in the rest of the world will hurt more. In short: acting morally may hit profits. Acting immorally will hurt them more.

A game played by these rules will blunt the Chinese Communist Party’s best weapon, intimidation. This works chiefly against targets whose willpower is already weak. If Western businesses are willing to give up and go home when threatened — and are known to be ready to do that — then bullying them becomes useless. Worse, it becomes counterproductive. The Chinese Communist Party has its brand too. It looks irresistible only when nobody resists it successfully.

Such a hard-headed approach to China is long overdue. Amid our outrage, we should therefore also be grateful for the Chinese Communist Party’s help in highlighting the increasingly stark choices we face.

April 5, 2021