How Free Speech Is Threatened By China’s Soft Power

China’s soft power is more dangerous than its hard power

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s recent tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests and implicitly insulting China set off an international chain of events that ended with Houston Rockets games no longer live-streamed or mentioned by Tencent Sports, which is significant since 500,000,000 Chinese watched NBA games on Tencent-affiliated platforms.

Following up was a statement by the sports division of China Central Television, the predominant state-sponsored television broadcaster of mainland China.

Whether the executives at Tencent want to or not, they must obey the implicit wishes of the Chinese government directly and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) indirectly or face consequences far worse than the loss of revenue derived from 500,000,000 viewers, as confirmed by the CCTV statement.

It appears that the influence exercised by China through economic means and soft power will be far greater than through military means and hard power, and this will have increasingly important consequences for American free speech in particular and American Civil Liberties in general. Let’s consider what that means exactly.

Chinese Influence

Hard Power Versus Soft Power

There are many definitions and interpretations of hard power and soft power, but let’s just consider the following concise definitions.

  • Hard Power: Direct and military influence
    Examples include passive military threats such as China’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea as a base of operations including runways for military aircraft, or outright active incursions such as its invasion of Korea in 1950 or its invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
  • Soft Power: Indirect and non-military influence
    Examples include economic and political influence in international institutions like the UN, World Trade Organization, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), as well as through culture and art.

China may exercise hard power directly over most of its regional sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific area, but its hard power is greatly limited in scope and utility since it does not come close to American hard power in the foreseeable future.

In contrast, China may exercise its soft power in a much larger sphere of influence, most especially in Africa, approaching the entire world and may approach and surpass American soft power very soon.

Because China is in a far disadvantageous position in hard power, it cannot hope to compete against America there for influence, and thus must resort to soft power.

Hypothetical Hard Power Influence

Let’s consider a thought experiment. Let’s say that there were statements implicitly critical of China such as Daryl Morey’s tweets, but by citizens of Japan and Australia, which are America’s closest allies in the Indo-Pacific area.

To stop those tweets and criticism, let’s say China started menacing via its military hard power assets to threaten or actually attack the means of communication such as bombing radio stations, cutting undersea communications wires, or even shooting down orbiting satellites.

This hard power aggression would be countered immediately by American and allied hard power, and more importantly, would enjoy great popular support on Social Media, news, and multinational corporations advertisement campaigns across all communication channels such as the internet, in print, on television, and all other forms.

There’d be international outrage in editorials, speeches, concerts, and marches all over the world in solidarity to China’s militaristic stance, which would be counterproductive to China’s desire to influence the rest of the world.

Soft Power Influence

Now let’s consider instead of military hard power actions, that China acts exactly in the way it did towards the Houston Rocket’s Daryl Morey and China instead refuses specific business from Japan and Australiaand broader access to China’s domestic markets and terminates extremely lucrative business contracts.

China can make an example out of only a few companies, or even a single one, by cutting all ties.

This would serve to completely stop criticism efficiently since it hits those who criticize China where it hurts the most, the financial bottom line, and this is vastly easier to do and hits harder than bullets or bombs.

This exercise of economic soft power has three effects:

  • Companies will self-censor and will not permit their employees to speak out against China, even indirectly or implicitly, for fear that it may cause loss of business.
    — It’s highly likely that many companies or organizations such as the NBA have already circulated internal memos, especially among their top executives, about “proper” social media practices where “proper” is defined as not criticizing China.
  • Companies will distance themselves from other companies that refuse to self-censor
    — Those that refuse to play by the rules set by China may find that they may be ostracized by their partners.
  • Companies may even prevent their customers from speaking critically of China.
    — An easily-envisioned scenario is Twitter or Facebook removing public material critical of China preemptively, or upon request by China.

This type of soft power influence is far more effective at stopping criticism of China and does so with much less risk, much less cost, and more completely.

Sovereignty versus State Control

To be completely fair though, China or any other nation should have the option to speak and act in their own defense and interests, just like America should have the right to cut off economic and political ties to any other nation or specific business that speaks ill or acts against the interests of America. It’s a matter of national sovereignty, or in China’s own words “internal affairs.”

The main difference, however, is that the government and the private business sectors in America are distinct and not necessarily intertwined with each other to the extent that the State-owned enterprises explicitly or large companies such as Tencent implicitly must obey the Chinese government.

American Free Speech

Example of Hate Crime

Currently, Free Speech is under assault in America.

For example, the concept of a “hate crime” or “bias crime” is attaching an implied thoughtcrime to upgrade a far lesser crime to a much more serious crime that is subject to more severe punishments.

This upgrading of an ordinary crime via a thoughtcrime may be bad enough, but it has been expanded even to criminalize factually true phrases to the level of a crime. For example, the use of the phrase “illegal alien” may come with a penalty of $250,000 per use, per this press release by the NYC “Human Rights” commission.

The use of language to control language is interesting since this is a “Human Rights” issue instead of a Freedom of Speech issue to utter factually true phrases.


I don’t believe these fines would be enforceable and if they’re challenged in court, it’ll ultimately lose in the Supreme Court as a Free Speech issue.

However, the existence of such a threat by the government to control and halt the use of politically improper phrases has a chilling effect since not many people would want to risk their money, time, and reputation to go through the entire process and fight the threat. Those who are truly malicious in their use of such words as part of broader discrimination can easily find other ways to harass illegal aliens.

Personal perspective: I fully support “legal” immigration that conforms to existing immigration law. We live under a system with a clearly-defined process to create laws, and current laws are the ones all citizens including all law enforcement must abide by. If immigration laws as they exist now are inadequate or unjust, we need immigration reform that goes through Congress to create better laws. We can’t simply deal with the effects of bad laws and be reactive to video news clips that elicit emotional reactions to start levying fines of $250,000 and curtailing Free Speech.)

American Government Coerced By China

Now consider that if one jurisdiction of the American government, in this case the New York City municipal government, can threaten its own US Citizens like this for political aims and infringe on their Freedom of Speech and Civil Liberties without coercive foreign involvement such as from a strong China, imagine the dangers in a couple of decades when China can exert much greater pressure?

How would this pressure look like?

One could imagine a large multi-billion-dollar state-owned Chinese company that wants to set up shop in some American city or state to create tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in taxes. However, it does so with strings attached, that any remarks critical of the Chinese company would cause immediate termination from employment, and perhaps fines for violating spurious regulation such as confidential secrets.

This could also extend beyond Chinese companies and affect American companies. If the local or state government that stands to benefit from that Chinese company couldn’t force other American companies to also comply with the requests of the Chinese company, then the government can apply pressure on American companies via:

  • Delaying various licenses in conjunction
  • Awarding competitors with more favorable contracts

Under Assault By Profit-Seeking Corporations

The time will come pretty soon where profit-seeking corporations that want to maintain good relations with the Chinese government, and implicitly and more importantly the Chinese Communist Party, in order to access China’s markets will start to passively and implicitly self-censor or proactively and explicitly censor.

How would this look like?

It could play out exactly like our opening example with the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. China could simply exert economic pressure and close off lucrative avenues.

This would modify the behavior of American companies such that they

  • Self-censor their own employees
  • Not do business with any other businesses that are not approved by the Chinese government
  • Require in the Terms of Service that speech critical of China is not permitted
    This is far more discretionary than the First Amendment rights to free speech since it concerns the operations of private property.

Furthermore, in highly-lucrative Chinese markets like the sports market, not only would companies refrain from criticism, they may actually take it a step further to extol the benefits of China in order to get into the good graces of the Chinese government that acts as the gatekeepers to the highly lucrative markets.

This will be an even more direct method of influence by the Chinese since it concerns their influence on for-profit companies, that are less bound by the rules that the government must abide by. It is disheartening to ponder the implications of Chinese influence.

Free Speech Even When It’s Difficult

Easy Targets of Criticism

Thus, we see that the Chinese government may influence American Civil Liberties such as Freedom of Speech much more efficiently through soft power than through hard power by appealing to financial and economic issues.

Unfortunately, the reality of American culture now is that the targets of critical Free Speech are usually the easy and low-risk ones, most especially President Donald Trump.

Personal perspective: I can get along well with both fervent pro-Trump and anti-Trump people, so long as they’re smart, thoughtful, and aren’t in a permanently triggered or angry state.

If we expand this list of easy targets a bit further, the objects of criticism are Conservative Whites and Christians. It’s very easy to criticize them since they’re the majority and there is a very low risk here professionally and publicly, and in fact, those who attack Conservative Whites and Christians are lionized by the internet mob.

Difficult Targets of Criticism

Unfortunately, I don’t see this same criticism being nearly as honest when directed at the Chinese. This is most especially since it may viewed through the lenses of “race” that’s a complex and sensitive issue domestically.

Of course true racism is bad, but in reality, Chinese policy should be viewed as associated with the “Communist Party” or the Chinese state, rather than the Chinese race.

It’ll be pretty rare to see anyone to choose exercise of Free Speech against China if millions or billions of dollars are on the line, especially if even implicit or indirect criticism of China may offend the Communist Party and have grave financial consequences.

Practical Action Items

What do we do about the increasingly potent Chinese soft power that threatens to chip away at Freedom of Speech?

The First Step is Awareness

The very first step to counter that soft power is to be explicitly aware that our precious American freedoms such as Freedom of Speech are being eroded, and specifically how.

I hope that this article served its purpose to show clear examples of how soft power can be exercised to influence actions.

Inclusive Open Culture

As for the next steps, it may be to work towards the ideals of an open free society, in that we must be accepting of those with differing views.

For example:

  • Do not view Trump “haters” as irrationally and permanently triggered, but honestly afraid for and care about the future of America
  • Similarly, consider that Trump “supporters” love America just the same, but they may have a different way of expressing it

Encourage and be tolerant of alternative views even if you don’t agree with them. This way, all Americans across the political spectrum will be united in supporting and demanding their representatives have the guts to address Chinese soft power more comprehensively.

AI/full-stack software engineer | trader/investor/entrepreneur | physics phd

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