A few weeks ago, ESPN’s use of a map of China featuring the Nine Dash Line may have gone unnoticed or passed off as a careless gaffe. The map, rarely seen outside of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), was featured on an October 9 broadcast about the fallout between the NBA and China over a (subsequently deleted) tweet by Houston Rocket’s general manager in support of the Hong Kong citizens who are resisting Beijing’s increased influence in the governance of Hong Kong en masse.
But times are changing. The general American public is, for the first time, becoming aware of the extent of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) interference in, and censorship pressures on, Western entities who want to do business in the PRC. In this climate, did Disney-owned ESPN cross a line in using this internationally contentious map to discuss the recent Chinese issue with the NBA? Will this be seen as pandering to the CCP and meet with a backlash by the American public?
The map has been used by China since 1947 and represents the country’s internationally unrecognized claim of sovereignty over a large area of the South China Sea outlined by nine dashes, or sometimes ten as seen in the version shown on ESPN. The area comprises a large number of territorial disputes between the PRC, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.
Major geopolitical disputes represented on this map include the sovereignty of Taiwan, the disputed territories of the Paracel and Spratly Islands, among many others. Outside the South China sea, this map also depicts Himalayan Indian-administered Arunachal Pradesh as Chinese territory, which China and Taiwan both claim and refer to as “South Tibet.”
What happened to cause this tipping point of American and international awareness?
A South Park episode followed by a series of events attempting to suppress support for the Hong Kong protesters and downplay the Hong Kong issue set into motion a classic example of the Streisand effect. It brought wide awareness upon the issue of Chinese censorship pressures faced by global corporations, who obligingly acquiesce in order to do business in the PRC unhindered.
On October 2, 2019, the 299th Episode of the American animated television series South Park, “Band in China” premiered on Comedy Central. This episode helped amplify awareness among the general public of the CCP’s influence and financially pressured self-censorship of American and global corporations who see the China market as a key for international growth.
Foreshadowing the events to come the following weekend, a scene in the episode set in an airplane featured, among many recognizable Disney and Marvel Comic Universe characters, NBA players who were also going to China—where the basketball league is meeting increasing success and popularity—to profit from the growing Chinese economy.
Two days later, a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of protesters in Hong Kong set off a crisis with China for the NBA. The league apologized at the behest of the local Chinese consulate, and the tweet was deleted to appease the autocratic government. This time the acquiescence to Chinese pressures met with a backlash against the NBA from the American public. Because timing.
The same weekend, Blizzard pre-emptively banned a Hearthstone player for comments supporting the Hong Kong protesters for fears of pressures from Chinese censors. This has caused a massive, growing backlash against the company. Gamers around the world overwhelmingly rallied with the Hong Kong protesters and have even gone so far as turning Blizzard characters from the popular game Overwatch into anti-CCP icons.
Perhaps the apology issued by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone following the banning of their show in China best sums up the emerging zeitgeist:
Does selling to the Chinese mainland market mean alienating other markets and universal values? How do global corporations balance the geopolitical and cultural ramifications of offending the CCP without creating a backlash from consumers in the rest of the world?
These are complex and ever-evolving questions whose answers depend on a number of factors unique to each business. Global companies need a partner like Nimdzi Insights to navigate their global business through the murky waters of such highly sensitive geopolitical and geocultural issues, their ramifications and risk mitigating strategies.
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