Hu Xijin, a prominent commentator and former chief of China’s nationalist newspaper Global Times, juxtaposed two recent events to suggest China has a more open business environment for U.S. companies than the other way around.
“On the same day when TikTok CEO was questioned in the U.S., Apple CEO received a warm welcome in Apple’s flagship store in Beijing,” he said in a March 27 tweet.
“Different countries, different breadth of mind.”
That is misleading.
On March 23, TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew faced about five hours of questioning during a congressional hearing, at which U.S. lawmakers expressed concern that the immensely popular short-video platform poses a threat to personal data and national security.
Front and center among those concerns was TikTok’s connection to its Chinese parent company Bytedance, which could be compelled to share information with the Chinese government under China’s National Security Law.
The Biden administration has pushed TikTok to change its Chinese ownership or face a possible ban in the United States. Beijing said it "resolutely opposes" the divesture, while Chew insisted that Bytedance, as a private company, is beholden to its shareholders and board, not the Chinese government.
The next day, March 24, Apple CEO Tim Cook posted a picture on China’s Twitter-like Weibo of himself greeting staff and customers at an Apple store in Beijing. He was in the PRC capital to attend the Chinese government-organized China Development Forum.
Similar to Hu’s comment, Chinese state media also seized on the apparent contrast between the two events to misleadingly suggest that China provides a more open and freer environment for U.S. companies than the U.S. does for Chinese companies.
“This shows that China is the one that is actually practicing fair and free trade,” Global Times quoted a netizen as saying.
To begin with, it is ironic that Hu made his comment, and many of his jabs at the United States echoing Beijing’s talking points, on Twitter, a U.S. internet company that has been banned in China since 2009.
Twitter is by no means alone; other high-profile U.S. Internet companies or services that have been blocked in China include Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia, Gmail, Yahoo, Snapchat, Signal, Pinterest, Quora, Vimeo, Reddit, WhatsApp, Messenger, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Slack, Blogspot, Blogger, Medium and SoundCloud.
Along with internet companies, China has blocked numerous major U.S. media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, TIME, NBC, and the Voice of America and its sister outlets.
They were all shut out by the notorious “Great Firewall,” the Chinese government’s system that blocks foreign websites and filters information unfavorable to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
For example, YouTube was blocked in March 2009 after Beijing charged that videos posted to YouTube appearing to show Chinese security forces brutally beating Tibetan protesters in the 2008 Tibetan unrest were a “lie.”
China blocked Instagram in September 2014 after images of Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests – commonly known as the Umbrella Movement – flooded the platform.
China blocked Meta's WhatsApp messaging service in September 2017 ahead of the Party Congress, the CCP’s highest-profile meeting, held every five years to choose the party leadership.
The Great Firewall was created in 1998 but has been continually refining its censorship techniques. Under President Xi Jinping, China’s Internet restrictions have grown tighter. The rights group Freedom House rated China as having the least online freedom in 2022 among the 70 countries it monitored.
Some people in China access blocked services by using virtual private networks (VPN) that provide communications channels to servers outside the country.
In 2017, Beijing banned developing, providing and using VPNs that are not approved by state regulators, which prompted Apple’s controversial decision to remove VPN apps from its China app store. A 2021 law in China imposed a more comprehensive crackdown on VPNs, with even harsher punishment.
“This should dissuade any foreign VPN company from registering and running its business in China,” Benjamin Ismail, from the free speech campaign group GreatFire, told the Protocol news site in 2021.
Moreover, U.S. companies in general face more restrictions in China than Chinese companies do in the U.S.
“AmCham China's members face longstanding structural challenges in the China market that conspire to tilt the playing field against (foreign-invested enterprises) and foreign investors," the American Chamber of Commerce in China said in its 2021 report.
Under Chinese regulations, foreign investors usually must partner and set up a joint venture with a local company in order to do business in China. In addition, many foreign companies are also forced to transfer their core technologies in order to gain access to the Chinese market. Foreign businesses in China face far more limits and restrictions on investing locally than Chinese companies do in the U.S.
The U.S. business news outlet CNBC listed some of the business sectors in which U.S. companies face major restrictions in China:
“Health care services — Foreign investment in medical institutions in China cannot exceed 70%. In comparison, no such cap exists in the U.S.
“Cloud computing — Foreign firms cannot invest more than 50% in cloud services businesses. There are no such restrictions in the U.S.
“Movies — The Chinese government sets film release dates and requires that 75% of revenue remains with Chinese film production companies. In the U.S., Chinese companies can distribute films without restrictions and set their own release dates.”