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The power China has over companies and countries (and how that shapes the world)

Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute writing about China’s use of sanctions to flex its power for Australian Foreign Affairs [$]:

In the words of Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong, well known for his hawkish views, Chinese diplomacy under Xi Jinping is likely to divide the world increasingly along the lines of “friends and enemies”. Writing in the early years of the Xi administration, Yan said those countries that play a “constructive” role will get “practical benefits” from China’s development. Conversely, antagonistic countries “will face more sanctions and isolation”.

Beijing has stuck to the mindset that it pioneered in the early years of the People’s Republic, using access to its large market as an inducement to get its way and closing off economic opportunities to countries or companies that don’t toe the line. The difference now is that China wields real economic clout as the world’s largest trading power.

China’s affect on other countries, both now and into the future, warrants a great deal of thought and attention. It’s also understandable. They’re a superpower and, as McGregor spells out in his essay, they’ve learned from the United States’ playbook in a lot of way.

What deserves an equal amount of attention, albeit for slightly different reason, is the affect China’s government will have on major companies and what they produce.

Creative and commercial output – be it a film, a game, a phone, or anything else – help form our cultural understanding of the world and the assumption we make. It’s not one big thing; it’s thousands of little things, consumed daily. Over time, that forms the fabric of our lives (even if we see through it).

Podcaster Stephen West touches on this in an episode of Philosphize This! discussing the work of Adorno and Horkheimer:

The plots of these movies are going to resemble a sort of: stay in your own lane, don’t become an antagonist in the movie of your life because the bad guy always loses, when life gives you lemons make lemonade and just enjoy your life as much as you can. This becomes the attitude portrayed by art that life begins to imitate. The culture industry is constantly working to turn everyone into the same person, so that they’ll buy the cultural products that it produces.

What’s even crazier Adorno and Horkheimer point out is that all this stuff is not a mystery to most people. Most people realize at some point in their life that this is going on, that people are just sort of doing their best impression of a conglomeration of different characters they’ve seen on all the movies and TV shows they’ve watched. […]

Why would somebody do that? Why would people that see through what’s going on with the culture industry still choose to participate in the game? Horkheimer would say, because they consider the alternative. What can an average worker REALLY do when it comes to changing it? They’re not gonna run for president. They’re not going to incite revolution. The only change that would come for them if they chose to not participate.

West goes on to explain that Adorno believes that “works of art have the power to give people a different perspective on things without violence. Works of art have the power to change the world.” I’d agree with that. And it doesn’t have to be niche or independent art that achieves this. Mainstream art – mainstream products and platforms – can incite real change (rather than just co-opting the movements behind them.)

Any revolution in China will invariably have to come from within. But external attitudes matter. And, so long as the people making art, products, and platforms want access to China’s market, they will invariably have to toe the line China’s government wants them to toe.

Things like Apple removing the Taiwanese flag from iOS in Hong Kong and Macai or removing an app that helped protestors in Hong Kong avoid police from the App Store may seem small as individual moments but they, along with any number of cultural artefacts made in the past or in the future, have the power to shape our understanding of the world when aggregated.

(In the case of the Taiwanese flag, it literally removed a marker of independent statehood so it’s not even that small a thing when taken as a single act.)

I don’t intend for that to be hyperbolic. But I do think it’s true. How any individual sees and understands what’s happening around them is informed by countless things. Some of which they believe to be instructive but, really, millions more they don’t even notice.

Many of the people who create these cultural touchstones don’t set out to do so. They’re just making a movie or an app. They just want to get paid.1

But, in the process of getting paid in China, they may have to reflect a particular view of the world amenable to an authoritarian government.

That’s not something to be afraid of. But it is something to be aware of and something to think about.

  1. Apple may have set out to be culture defining – and they may still want to do so in some area – but I don’t think that holds true in general anymore. 

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