The Solution to Chinese Censorship Is Not Show Hearings

Government bullying won’t fix censorship caused by government bullying.


American public figures and corporations are increasingly self-censoring to please the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). One conservative advocate wants Congress to fight back by dragging business leaders and others to Washington, D.C., for public hearings.

But China's government bullying can't be fixed by U.S. government bullying.

Fearing loss of access to the Chinese market, companies routinely avoid speech that may anger the CCP. For example, an investigative report from the free speech group PEN America revealed that Hollywood studios write and produce with CCP guidelines in mind in hopes of retaining access to its $2.46 billion box-office market.

From 2016 to 2021, the Swedish National China Centre compiled data on foreign businesses in China from English and Chinese language news sites, company statements, and social media posts and found that Chinese consumers routinely boycott companies that contradict CCP doctrine. More than 80 percent of the companies that consumers boycotted for violating Chinese territorial claims, such as sovereignty over Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong, issued apologies in response.

Actors, sports officials, and other public figures also regularly apologize to China and self-censor when they offend the CCP. In 2019, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters, costing the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars in deals and leading Chinese broadcasters to cancel broadcasts. The league described the comment as "regrettable" and LeBron James said Morey "wasn't educated on the situation," while Morey apologized for "offending or misunderstanding" Chinese fans. In 2021, actor John Cena apologized for calling Taiwan a country on social media while filming Fast & Furious 9. That same year, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon apologized after joking that his company would outlast the CCP, stating that "it's never right to joke" about another country.

The consistent self-censorship U.S. companies and public figures engage in to appease an authoritarian regime led Oren Cass, founder and executive director of the conservative think tank American Compass, to argue that Congress should intervene. Cass sees China's economic influence as undermining the American tradition of free speech.

"The pursuit of profit often calls for kowtowing to the CCP. As a result, American movie studios and sports leagues self-censor in keeping with the CCP's preferences…and American business leaders fall over themselves apologizing for any possible slight," Cass writes in a recent policy paper, A Hard Break from China. "Americans are mostly oblivious to the reality that they are seeing only what the CCP will allow, except when the occasional misstep by a star or executive leads to groveling."

One solution to "re-normalize free speech," Cass argues, is to "raise the reputational stakes by creating a high-profile forum that embarrasses people who toe the CCP line." Enter the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.

Cass' proposal seeks to transform the committee into a platform where those who are honest "earn widespread praise" and those who stay silent or lie would face "higher reputational costs." Business leaders would be asked or subpoenaed to testify under oath about their experiences with the CCP and what they really think about China. 

"We're going to have a Hollywood hearing. We're going to have a sports hearing. We're going to have a finance hearing. And we're going to kind of move our way consistently through different sectors," Cass tells Reason, arguing that the prospect of public humiliation would encourage executives to stop self-censoring.

"The only peril you're in is if you have really dumb and indefensible ideas, which is exactly how a democracy is supposed to work," Cass says. "It's not like some kind of witch hunt project to try to embarrass people. It's, in a sense, quite the opposite. All you have to do to have a triumphant appearance is show up and say what you think."

Other critics of China's influence strongly disagree. Having a House committee question business leaders "is not a good step," Angeli Datt, PEN America's China research and advocacy lead, tells Reason. "We can't counter Chinese government censorship or restrictions on free expression by restricting free expression. We have to show that within a democracy and within the confines and principles that we believe in—democratic norms and free expression—that there's ways to put pressure and expose and ultimately shame companies into not making censorship decisions."

Cass, who sees his proposal as a counterbalance to the CCP's censorship pressures, denies that the committee would have its own chilling effect on international business relations. "What's coercive about the subpoena?" Cass says. "The only thing you're being asked to do is, again, say what you actually think."

The House Select Committee on the CCP, formed in January and chaired by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R–Wis.), has not summoned any business leaders or celebrities to speak about Chinese censorship. However, when asked at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce conference in May if the committee would seek testimony from business executives, Gallagher said "Companies should be prepared to defend their investment strategy in China, their manufacturing presence in China," according to The Wall Street Journal. "My goal is not to have some sort of bomb-throwing viral moment," he added.

The committee follows several legislative efforts to curb CCP-induced censorship. In 2019 and again in 2021, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would have set up the China Censorship Monitor and Action Group, an interagency task force dedicated to reporting on CCP-related free expression concerns. In May 2020, Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) introduced the SCRIPT Act which would block federal agencies from assisting productions that alter content for CCP censors. In February 2022, Rep. Mark Green (R–Tenn.) introduced the SCREEN Act, which would have a similar effect.

Their proposals touch on an underlying irony of American concerns about Chinese soft power. As PEN America noted in its report, "The Hollywood-Pentagon relationship" affords Hollywood studios "conditional access to military facilities and experts" for films that the government "believes will reflect well on the country's armed forces." The report rightly notes, however, that "this governmental influence does not bring to bear a heavy-handed system of institutionalized censorship, as Beijing's does."

Cass and Gallagher aren't alone in wanting business leaders to testify about Chinese influence. In May, Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, testified to the House Rules Committee, calling on behalf of her organization for Congress to "hold hearings requesting executives of companies…to testify in relation to their China operations, including whether they have conducted human rights due diligence and their responses to requests from Chinese authorities that would be contrary to their human rights responsibilities."

On the other hand, to combat censorship in Hollywood, PEN America endorses in its report Gallagher's proposal requiring studios to disclose whether their films were altered "to fit the demands of the Chinese Communist Party," similar to the "no animals were harmed in the making of this film" notice that many films contain. It also recommends studios commit to only altering their films for the version shown in China.

Datt maintains that congressional hearings would constitute government overreach. "I have no problem with blasting that person or having media scrutiny on a business decision because that should be subjected to scrutiny…. Studios should not be making these decisions in their films based on the dictates of a single government," she says. But "government hearings, I think, cross a line into another government…coercively forcing studios into a very specific effort."

Datt points out correctly that the American tradition of free expression is built on the idea that the people, not the federal government, will hold institutions accountable for their speech. Allowing Congress to intimidate public figures over their speech, whether censored by China or not, risks unintentionally chilling China-related speech and business relations.

The press, everyday citizens, and other concerned stakeholders have always held companies and public figures accountable for their speech. The solution to China's infringement on free speech is not government bullying—it's more speech.