When Xi Jinping greeted African leaders in Beijing last year, his speech contained a very Chinese formula: the “five nos”. In reality, all five negatives could be summed up as a single pledge. Unlike bossy westerners, China would never tell Africans how to run their own countries. There would be “no interference in African countries’ internal affairs”.
This principle of non-interference has been central to Chinese foreign policy since the 1950s. But as the Beijing government becomes more assertive around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that what we are seeing is “non-interference” with Chinese characteristics.
An incident last week underlined that, in reality, China feels perfectly entitled to interfere when foreigners express views that displease Beijing. A pro-Hong Kong tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets led to a clash between China and America’s National Basketball Association, which resulted in NBA games being pulled from Chinese state television.
This row was unusually high-profile because it featured the US and sport. But it fits a familiar pattern. Foreign countries and companies now have to cope with Chinese efforts to police their speech on an ever-widening range of taboo subjects, including Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, recent Chinese history, human rights and Beijing’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.
As China becomes both more powerful and more paranoid — and with a confrontation in Hong Kong looming — the number of these clashes will increase. So western governments are going to have to think much more systematically about how to respond. Otherwise they will find that cherished freedoms will be rapidly eroded.
It would be wrong to accuse Mr Xi of hypocrisy when he argues for non-interference. The Chinese president is sincerely indifferent about whether a foreign country is a dictatorship or a democracy. Insisting that countries cannot have views on each other’s internal political systems is a vital defence mechanism for the Chinese Communist party as it fends off outside pressure on human rights or the rule of law.
Beijing argues that foreigners who express views on a sensitive topic, such as Hong Kong, are interfering in China’s internal affairs. And this is where it crosses over into interference in free speech in the west. This is much more than an effort to stop foreigners standing in Tiananmen Square and shouting “freedom for Hong Kong”. China’s efforts to control and censor speech at home are gradually being internationalised, reaching into foreign corporations, the international media, the seminar rooms and campuses of western universities, and the statements and policies of foreign governments.
Twenty years ago, it was fairly easy to brush off China’s pressure tactics. But the massive size of the Chinese market means that western companies are now increasingly cautious about offending Beijing. The NBA swiftly sought to calm the dispute and the offending tweet was deleted. That same week Apple withdrew an app that helped Hong Kong demonstrators evade the police. China is Apple’s third-largest market.
These are just the most recent examples. Other companies that have bowed to pressure from Beijing include Marriott hotels and United Airlines, both of which were accused of encouraging the idea that Taiwan is a separate country.
Multinational companies can argue that they need to stay out of politics. But that is a much harder stance to take for media organisations and universities, for whom free expression and debate are fundamental.
When it comes to the media and academia, Beijing uses both visas and market access as a weapon. China specialists who are barred from the country can have their careers blighted. So the pressure to self-censor is huge.
The incentive not to offend the Chinese government extends to organisations as well as individuals. Many western media companies have (or had) ambitions for the Chinese market. (The Financial Times runs a Chinese-language website which is currently partially blocked in China).
Many western universities have opened up campuses or joint ventures inside China. But the importance of Chinese students as a source of income means that even academics located in the US, Australia and Europe are coming under pressure.
A politics lecturer at a British university told me recently that he had been asked by university authorities if he could remove a poster of the Tiananmen Square “tank man” from his office wall because it might be offensive to Chinese students. He refused. But the very fact that the request was made was telling.
For the moment, the reaction of western institutions to Chinese pressure is usually haphazard and improvised. But, since the problem is likely to become more intense, that should change. An attempt to draft some principles was made in a report for the Hoover Institution, which stresses the need for western organisations to be transparent about dealings with China, and to demand equal treatment for Chinese and western scholars.
It is time for Mr Xi’s five “nos” to be matched with some western “nos” — including a decisive “no” to restrictions on free speech.
Sign up here to the new podcast from Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist, and listen in on his conversations with the decision-makers and thinkers from all over the globe who are shaping world affairs