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Hong Kong Protests Put U.S. Businesses In A Tough Spot With China


Apple, the NBA, Vans sneakers, Comedy Central's "South Park" - they are among America's most visible brands with major business interests in China. But the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are putting some U.S. companies in an odd position, trying to appease China. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond has been looking into all this and joins us now in studio. Hi, Shannon.


MARTIN: So by way of getting into this conversation, explain just what happened this week.

BOND: Yeah. So there have been a lot of things. We'll start with Apple. They took down this app called HKmap.live. Activists were using that app to crowdsource the location of protests and police, so they could avoid the police. But Apple says remove the app because there were concerns about public safety. Maybe the app was going to be used to target police and even ambush them. Also, this week, Google took down a game where people could pretend to be a protester.

But it's not just about tech, other companies getting drawn in, too. Vans sneakers were pulled off shelves by storekeepers in Hong Kong who were angry about a design contest where some entries were removed that referenced the protests.


BOND: "South Park" is not even on the Chinese Internet right now after upset - they were upset about an episode about censorship. And just this morning, the NBA canceled media appearances by players in Hong Kong after a whole drama over tweets. So...


BOND: ...This is a real minefield for companies.

MARTIN: So this isn't the first time American companies have ended up bowing to pressure from China. I guess this is all about the potential of the Chinese market though, huh?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, there are 1.4 billion people in China, and companies want to sell them stuff.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BOND: So, you know, in Apple's case, they sold $52 billion worth of products - iPhones, AirPods, laptops - in the China region last year. That's a fifth of its total revenue. And, you know, that's a big deal.

They've removed apps before in mainland China. In 2017, it took down The New York Times app. Apple's also taken down apps that provide virtual private networks that might allow people to avoid censorship. And China's government has strong-armed other companies, too. Fashion brands apologized for selling T-shirts suggesting Hong Kong and Taiwan were independent.

And it's also - there are repercussions in the U.S. Just this week, basketball fans in Philadelphia at a game said they were kicked out after they were wearing free Hong Kong T-shirts. So there's a question - is China exporting the censorship back to the U.S.?

MARTIN: Right. So does that mean it is just getting more difficult for American companies that want to do business in China? I mean, they have to make these - or at least think about these - potential compromises.

BOND: Yeah. I mean, the issue here - Beijing doesn't want this movement to spread to other parts of China. And they perceive criticism from the outside as a threat to stability. I spoke with Michael Santoro. He's a business professor at Santa Clara University. And he says, you know, there's a careful line companies have had to walk in China for a long time. But things are different now. Here's what he said.

MICHAEL SANTORO: What has changed is that the Chinese government is now, for internal domestic reasons, feeling the need to push foreign companies around more.

BOND: Yeah. So, you know, we're hearing much more now these days about crackdowns on dissent in China. You know, lots of government surveillance. You know, it's really intense there. But we're also now seeing the government is starting to use that muscle not just in China, but against American companies. They're empowered in that way. And American companies are kind of caught in the middle here...


BOND: ...Because, you know, people - customers back home, customers outside of China are concerned about, you know, the positions they're taking.

MARTIN: So presumably, we're just going to see more of this, American corporations struggling with the politics of China.

BOND: Yeah. I think this isn't going to go away. And, you know, experts I spoke to, like Santoro, they say the Chinese government is only going to become more sensitive to these issues, not less, especially as these protests in Hong Kong continue. They've been going on for months. They're escalating. And, you know, if you think about it, these are companies - they're hugely powerful. They're hugely popular. If they can't stand up to China, who can?

MARTIN: Right. All right. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Shannon, thank you. We appreciate it.

BOND: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.