Many American and other western corporations invest heavily in authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia and China. Such companies often claim that, thanks to their involvement, democratic values like human rights and the rule of law will spill over into dictatorships and transform them from within. Instead, they provide autocrats with new opportunities to both repress rights at home and exert influence abroad.
On November 22, 2021 the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe hosted a briefing examining the interplay between western business and dictators, particularly as it concerns human rights abuse. Panelists discussed the recent Russian elections, where Google and Apple censored content at the behest of the Putin regime; corporate censorship and other abuse on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party; and options for policy responses.
Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician and economist, discussed how American companies like Google and Apple could be coerced into succumbing to the Russian government’s censorship demands. He noted that the situation isn’t all bad: Google and Apple had resisted past censorship requests by the Russian government.
However, the removal of an app created by Alexei Navalny’s organization to help coordinate protest votes in the 2021 Duma elections was problematic; there was nothing illegal about the content, and tech companies like Apple and Google removed them without communicating a legal explanation for doing so, Milov said.
Milov suggested that first, companies should not give in to these types of demands by governments so as not to embolden them, and second, should make such communication with governments public to provide transparency.
Matt Schrader, Advisor for China at the International Republican Institute, described how the Chinese Communist Party tries to influence other countries’ political systems by leveraging economic access. He pointed toward the People’s Republic of China’s use of its embassies abroad to form mutually beneficial relationships with businesses and wealthy individuals to influence political discourse and curry support for China.
In the United States, for instance, this support can come in the form of lobbying against laws such as the Uyghur Human Rights Act, Schrader said.
Another example, Schrader continued, is the film industry. China is a large market, and film companies are denied access to the Chinese market if they produce any films critical of China.
Finally, Schrader pointed out the importance of the megaphone of celebrity in combating human rights violations. For example, efforts by U.S. tennis player Serena Williams and other athletes to raise awareness about missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has led to serious discussion about moving the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, while the ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has not.
Karen Sutter, Specialist in Asian Trade and Finance at the Congressional Research Service, focused on the Chinese government’s increased economic pressure on countries, organizations and individuals to conform to China. According to her, the line between the government’s use of its authority and its commercial interest has been blurred. This includes rulings on anti-trust, business licensing, and other matters.
“China’s use of economic coercion to push through policy goals is intensifying,” Sutter said, adding that this coercion is not limited to individuals or companies operating in China, creating gaps in public awareness in third countries, and taking away the ability to have public, informed debates on issues related to China.
Sutter elaborated on several tools the United States could use to respond to China, including examining Chinese tactics, acknowledging that China benefits from the U.S. interest in its market, and understanding how China uses measures and countermeasures that put American companies in the middle of disputes between the two governments. Sutter continued by explaining that this system of measures and countermeasures as well as the asymmetric access to the economy poses the greatest challenge.
Asked whether there is any indication that China’s influence over American enterprises could position China for a military advantage, Sutter pointed toward the issue of dual-use technologies and technological transfer to the Chinese government itself. She questioned whether other countries would backfill such arrangements if the United States imposed restrictions, and then further asked if there was a good way to impose restraints on or consequences for malign Chinese behavior. Schrader added that China sees embeddedness in globalization as a source of power and seeks to position itself to benefit the most it can from technological and scientific innovation.
On the question of companies like Apple or Google “decoupling” from Russia and China, Milov responded that these companies would reach a point at which it would no longer be worth it to operate in country. He suggested, however, that companies could operate in Russia without a physical presence and thus limit their exposure to coercion.
Sutter added that decoupling is not limited to U.S. companies looking to leave China. Rather, Chinese industrial policy shows attempts towards becoming self-sufficient in the areas of aircraft, semiconductors, medical equipment, and other key areas. In the meantime, Sutter said to end her testimony, the United States and Europe could use the threat of decoupling as leverage.