Susan Greenberg loses her job in a good cause-offending Chinaby Susan Greenberg / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Why does china matter? In particular, why are western organisations so ready to trim their sails to get through Chinese trade winds which blow cold on any outside criticism of its record on human rights? British business figures mutter curses at Chris Patten for complicating matters with his “misplaced idealism” about democracy. The BBC is accused of censoring its own reports to safeguard satellite television access to those giant audiences. The Disney Corporation jeopardises lucrative deals by resisting Beijing pressure and proceeding with a film on the Dalai Lama-but Michael Ovitz, the executive responsible, is soon out on his ear.
I know whereof I speak. Until very recently I edited World Link, the magazine of the World Economic Forum, which runs the celebrated annual gathering in Davos. I am now job hunting again following a series of events which led to the Forum banning its own magazine from a Hong Kong summit last autumn because it was thought the cover might offend the Chinese authorities.
In this cynical world, perhaps such stories do not surprise. Most people assume that businesses will always follow the dollar, ethics be damned. Why should they behave differently in this case?
The fact is that they are behaving differently. China watchers report surprise at a growing number of cases of western bodies second guessing Beijing and censoring themselves. China is not the only example: there is plenty of money to be made from repressive oil-rich sheikhdoms, as testified by British government attempts to have Saudi dissident Muhammad al Masaari expelled. But China seems spectacularly more successful than others at getting its way.
Part of the explanation, I suspect, is a strange form of inverted cultural snobbery. China has the long-ingrained authority of self-belief that hits the soft target of western self-doubt. Hence the self-interested motives of people in power are presented as an example of “Asian values.” It is all so deliciously different, mysterious, complicated.
Even if you look at the issue on a purely business level, such a rush to please the powerful can be dangerous, in the sense that following fashions is always dangerous. Many companies fell over each other to get a foothold in the Chinese market, only to realise later that arbitrary rule can be bad for business. The World Link cover story that caused all my trouble outlined 12 such cautionary tales based on everyday experience.
Businessweek struck the…