The killing of George Floyd has ignited a civil society deeply disturbed by systemic inequality and police brutality. In the wake of mass demonstrations throughout the country, countless companies have decided to speak out against injustice.
This is not Nike’s first time speaking out in support of racial equality. In 2018, Nike signed a multimillion-dollar contract with racial justice activist and former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick, the face of the brand’s “Dream Crazy” campaign.
But while the company proudly stands with the black community, its sneakers are produced in factories that evidently employ the forced labor of China’s imprisoned Uighur minority. When will global brands realize that their activism in America visibly clashes with their silence on authoritarian abuses abroad?
Shoe and apparel brand Vans also voiced its support for the ongoing demonstrations by sharing its purported dedication to “create change” and “fight racial hatred and discrimination.” The company even donated $200,000 to the NAACP, Color of Change and the GSA Network.
But in 2019, Vans removed a leading shoe design depicting protests in Hong Kong from a global competition, sparking a boycott by pro-democracy activists. The company released a statement saying, “As a brand that is open to everyone, we have never taken a political position,” and claimed the design was removed for violation of guidelines.
Gaming and entertainment company Activision Blizzard also took a stand against racism and inequality. the memory of thousands of fans canceling their subscriptions to protest Blizzard’s censorship of the words of a pro-democracy Hong Kong competitor in a live streamed game has not yet completely faded.
Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai personally shared that “when members of our community hurt, we all hurt [...] Everyone can use their voice for change.” Apple’s CEO Tim Cook published a long statement, stressing that the company’s mission has been to create change, diversity and inclusivity. He said that “issues of human dignity will not abide standing on the sidelines” and announced that the company is donating to U.S. non-profit organizations.
But as thousands of peaceful protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong to protest China’s creeping reach, Google and Apple both removed Hong Kong protest-related apps from their app stores; one a game using the Hong Kong protests as the theme and the other a live map allowing citizens to avoid violent riot police and tear gas.
The Chinese government, a one-party dictatorship, has brazenly weaponized the country’s vast economic power to intimidate foreign companies to comply with its political ideology, and even to help spread its party propaganda.
To protect their market share in China, a country with increasing wealth and consumer power, foreign companies have learned to self-censor any “sensitive topics” from their marketing language, including acknowledgment of the Tiananmen massacre and recognition of Taiwan and Tibet as independent countries.
When Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message of support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the National Basketball Association (NBA) immediately received backlash from Chinese fans online and the Chinese Basketball Association, calling for the NBA to fire Morey for supporting the pro-democracy protests that the Chinese government had been strongly condemning. After some initial stumbling, league commissioner Adam Silver affirmed the NBA’s support for freedom of speech and refused to censor Morey.
But Nike was so worried by the Chinese government’s heated response to the NBA that it pulled all Houston Rockets merchandise from their stores in China. It also stopped selling products designed by Jun Takahashi, a renowned Japanese streetwear designer, because he posted support for the Hong Kong protests on his social media.
By complying with the Chinese government’s political sensitivities at all costs, foreign companies that operate in China give aid to an authoritarian government that tightly controls what information its citizens can consume. Their actions not only open themselves to public criticism from clear-eyed consumers. They may also have serious implications under both international and U.S. law.
With the White House's recent call for companies to move out of China, American companies should expect their company practices to face a higher level of scrutiny should they decide to continue conducting business in China.
Close ties or a proven willingness to work with the Chinese government could suggest that the company is more likely to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Companies’ censorship of information could also open them to prosecution under the Global Magnitsky Act, as the act sanctions anyone, including U.S. entities, for participating in or supporting corruption in connection with serious human rights abuses.
When the National Basketball Association (NBA) refused China’s calls for self-censorship, fans in the U.S. and abroad applauded the league’s values-driven leadership. Although the NBA lost revenue on game broadcasts from China’s official state television by refusing to fire Morey, private platforms have resumed streaming games for fans in China, and the league remains as popular as before, if not more so.
This is not the only recent example supporting the theory that making public displays of support for civil rights and liberties has led to greater profitability for private companies. For instance, while social media was flooded with calls to boycott Nike after signing the Kaepernick deal, the company went on to see a dramatic boost in sales.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) indices suggest that companies that take into account ESG factors, such as human rights practices, in their operations perform better financially. But even so, corporations are naturally wary of taking public positions on contentious issues, and are reticent to do so unless compelled into action by employees, consumers and shareholders. That is why public pressure is vital to push global brands towards speaking up against inequality and injustice abroad as well as at home.
Against the backdrop of a global decline in human rights and freedom, the voices of corporate America – and the resulting impact – can be even louder and more powerful. If consumers demand that the brands they buy lead with democratic values and uphold fundamental human rights for everyone, regardless of race or nationality, they have a chance to truly make a difference.
As Nike said, “Don’t make any more excuses.” Just do it.