Money and morals make a toxic mix when doing business in China

Global corporations in the country tend to stay silent when it comes to Beijing’s human rights record

Major democracies have been vocal in condemning China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the imprisonment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and the bullying of Taiwan.

But leading global companies have mainly remained deaf and dumb to Beijing’s dark undertones, putting money before moral issues.

Unlike taking a stand against racism or hate speech in their own countries, criticizing the actions of the Communist Party government carries a huge financial risk warning.

Big business has rightly called out injustices in western democracies. But they have tended to stay tight-lipped amid fears that speaking out would affect their bottom line in the world’s second-largest economy.

“[We] surveyed the 48 largest US businesses with operations in China and asked if they had a position on the well-documented evidence of the Chinese government’s systematic repression in Xinjiang. The vast majority – 88% – did not reply or would not respond to questions,” The Wire China reported in a cover story entitled The Xinjiang Silence on March 7.

The facts:

  • Up to 1.4 million Uighur Muslims have been held in internment camps in Xinjiang, according to human rights groups.
  • Credible media reports have alleged “rape, sexual abuse and torture,” which has horrified the international community.
  • Washington has branded the atrocities as “genocide.”
  • The CCP has also launched a major crackdown in Hong Kong.
  • At least 100 people have been arrested in the city while leading figures of the pro-democracy movement have been imprisoned.
  • A massive shake-up to pack Hong Kong’s government with pro-Communist Party politicians will affectively end the “One Country, Two Systems” model.
  • President Xi Jinping’s administration has also continued to threaten Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province.
  • It has vowed to incorporate the democratic island into the “motherland” by force if necessary.

See no evil, hear no evil: “The American business community is determined not to comment on the crackdown in Xinjiang – atrocities the US government has deemed [as] genocide. But how long can their silence last,” The Wire China asked?

Missing in action: Brands and retailers, including Amazon, Nike, Uniqlo, Walmart and Zara, have been accused of “dragging their feet” amid concerns about forced labor in China’s cotton industry, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region reported at the time this story was posted. The area supplies more than a fifth of the world’s cotton. “While some brands, including ASOS, Marks and Spencer and Eileen Fisher, have demonstrated leadership and integrity by publicly committing to the requirements of the call to action, many fashion companies are dragging their feet,” the Coalition said in an open letter as reported by Ecotexitile News.

Firing back: “State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi [has] refuted reports on Xinjiang that claimed China’s policies in the region constitute ‘genocide.’ It is ridiculous and an ultimate lie to claim genocide is taking place in Xinjiang, Wang said,” China’s state-run Global Times stated.

Delve deeper: From finance to fast food and from high-tech to high fashion, there has generally been a deafening silence about Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang and its political-muzzling of Hong Kong. The Taiwan question has also become off-limits. For their part, democratic governments have talked tough while pursuing greater access to China’s economy. Critics have argued that the European Union has been quick to call out Xi’s government over Xinjiang and Hong Kong while signing the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. The deal has yet to be ratified by the European Parliament. But if it is, EU nations are expected to gain greater access to lucrative Chinese markets. Again, this sends mixed signals to Beijing.

China Factor comment: Sooner or later, multinational corporations will have to choose between appeasement and access to this economic Shangri-la. Democratic governments have a role to play in this reversal of policy. But, perhaps, it will be consumers who will make the final decision. Will they still be prepared to buy products and services from companies that endorse human rights and democracy at home but ignore the same issues in China while making huge profits?