This year, protesters from Minneapolis to Minsk demanded action from their governments. In the United States, demonstrations spurred change in criminal investigations, policy reform, and a national discourse about racial inequality. In Hong Kong, protests against mainland China’s infringements upon the semi-autonomous city’s civil liberties met a different beast: a despotic regime. Beijing stripped Hong Kong of its protections for free speech and dissent, effectively ending the arrangement known as one country, two systems. The death knell of a free Hong Kong rang quietly, attracting little comment from the international community.
Since Beijing implemented a new national security law in July 2020, academics, journalists, and politicians have been arrested and detained for “anti-patriotic activities.” Activists fearing indefinite detainment and torture attempted to flee, and the arbitrary expulsion of four pro-democracy lawmakers led to the mass resignation of remaining pro-democracy elected officials. The democratically minded international community has been too consumed with the COVID-19 crisis to express much more than sputtering reprimand. The pandemic shouldn’t be an excuse. It should be another reason to re-evaluate the way we regard China, specifically the Chinese Communist Party. The oppression in Hong Kong is the same that silenced whistleblowing doctors and citizen-journalists in Wuhan, allowing COVID-19 to spread unhindered in initial months. That Beijing emerged unscathed is a worrying indication that the influence of authoritarian regimes like the CCP is becoming accepted.
This normalization is apparent across business, media, and intergovernmental organizations. Recent actions by the U.S. government—banning Chinese apps, blacklisting Chinese companies, and restricting Chinese media access—have been painted as hypocritical. This criticism assumes Chinese businesses and media should be treated the same as the private corporations and independent media found in democratic nations. This misunderstands — or purposely glosses over — fundamental differences. Chinese business, media, and the government itself are unaccountable and do not comply with the rule of law essential to Western counterparts.
This discrepancy can be illustrated by the concept of private business. In the United States, there is a distinction between the private individual or corporation and the public state. The state and the private individual enter as equal and independent parties into a social contract (i.e., the Constitution), according to which certain rights and responsibilities are determined. Private individuals and the government are bound to this contract, and an independent judiciary serves as interpreter and enforcer of the contract. The government has the power to create and enforce laws, but private entities have the power to challenge, especially if there has been an infraction upon the original contract. Rule of law dictates a common belief system in the form of inalienable rights, and a system of checks and balances is structured around the essential independence of the private from the public.
There is no such system in China. China as a nation of people does not have higher law or an enforceable social contract with the CCP. The constitution is non-binding, and the constitution of the CCP bestows unmitigated power to the party. Subsequently, there is no division between private and public. No individual nor company has the right not to comply with CCP demands, as articulated in the 2017 National Intelligence Law. In fact, the CCP considers all mainland corporations and those operated by Chinese abroad to be extensions of the Party. Private Chinese companies, which are overwhelmingly subsidized by the government, might manage their own operations, but top decisions fall to the CCP. The United Front Work Department (UFWD) is a government agency devoted to gathering corporate intelligence, monitoring ideological compliance, and influencing private enterprise both domestically and abroad. There is no independent or private Chinese company. When Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, criticized Chinese regulatory law, President Xi Jinping personally halted the multibillion-dollar public listing of the Ant Group, an affiliate of the private financial giant.
Chinese media operates as an extension of the Publicity Department of the CCP, and Chinese media outlets are better classified as propaganda networks, not journalistic organizations. Foreign media is banned, because the CCP must have control to censor information and produce self-serving narratives, in addition to the mass monitoring and gathering of private communications. In the United States, we use democratic systems to tussle over the exact balance between slander and libel, and the definition of freedom of speech. In China, the CCP curates public perception, not to benefit the people, but to maintain authority.
The structure of Chinese entities is not nefarious due solely to its difference; it is different specifically for nefarious purposes. The checks and balances that exist in liberal-democratic countries exist so that both public and private spheres are held accountable to the will of the people. The CCP is an authoritarian regime whose sole purpose is maintaining and expanding power, and so its system is designed to do exactly that. It is a mistake to treat Chinese companies and organizations as independent entities, and an even bigger mistake to believe they can effectively be held accountable to a system that doesn’t exist in China. The Chinese market provides powerful incentive to accept this false equivalency and normalize interactions with Chinese entities, which leads companies and governments into complicity in human rights violations, the subversion of international law in the South China sea, the subjugation of Hong Kong, and genocide in Xinjiang. The CCP has explicitly stated it hopes to use increased economic integration for this exact purpose.
The first step to curbing the influence of the CCP is to recognize these differences and address them accordingly. We cannot afford to misunderstand or underestimate the CCP by championing false equivalencies. Until the day real stability—not oppression—is restored to Hong Kong, business with China should never be business as usual.
Dr. Robert S. Spalding, USAF Brig. Gen. (Ret.) is co-CEO of Q Networks. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America's Elite Slept." The views expressed are the author's own.