Zoom apparently has no qualms about censoring critics in China. In a statement, the company said, “We shut down the meetings instead of blocking the participants by country.” The company apologized for not doing a good job censoring international calls that have participants from China—because the way it did so unnecessarily affected users outside of China. Zoom said it was told by Chinese authorities that it had to “comply with local law,” yet Chinese law does not prohibit talking about Tiananmen or participating in international discussions.
The company’s disregard for freedom of expression is troubling but not surprising. Multinationals often cite “complying with local laws” when they give in to political pressure from Beijing. Apple cited this reason when it removed hundreds of virtual private network (VPN) apps from China’s App Store. LinkedIn said the same when it blocked content critical of the Chinese government.
Companies that think they can keep “complying with local laws,” which are often abusive, but not affect the rights and interests of their customers outside of China are being naïve. Apple’s never-ending capitulations to Beijing have already affected what people around the world can watch through its streaming services: In early 2018, company management warned the creators of some of the shows on Apple TV+ to avoid portraying China in a negative light. (Apple did not respond to a letter Human Rights Watch sent in November inquiring about its China-related operations.) Hollywood is increasingly censoring its films for Beijing’s sensibilities, such as the removal of a Taiwan flag from Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in the recent sequel to the 1986 movie Top Gun.
Companies understandably want access to China’s huge market. Some 700 Zoom engineers are based in China. The majority of Apple’s products are assembled in China. But capitulation hasn’t and won’t get them to safety—it has made them vulnerable to more demands for capitulation.
If each company alone faces a choice between submitting to Beijing’s censorship demands and being denied access to the Chinese market, many will surely opt for groveling. But if companies band together to stand up to the Chinese government’s bullying, the balance of power could shift. The Chinese government can’t get rid of all foreign companies.
Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. They should draft and promote codes of conduct for dealing with China that prohibit participation in or facilitation of infringements of the right to free expression, information, privacy, association, or other internationally recognized human rights. Strong common standards would make it more difficult for Beijing to ostracize those who stand up for basic rights and freedoms. Consumers and shareholders would also be better placed to insist that the companies not succumb to censorship as the price of doing business in China, and that they should never benefit from or contribute to abuses.
Facing pressure from within and outside of the company last year, Google terminated a plan to launch a censored search engine in China, saving itself from being complicit in human rights violations. Other companies should do the same.