In a high-stakes game marrying geopolitics with big business and international espionage, is turnabout fair play? According to one very opinionated corner of the Chinese Internet, the answer is a resounding yes.
Yesterday, the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report casting a heavy shadow over Chinese telecom behemoths Huawei and ZTE. The report held the two “failed to provide evidence that would satisfy any fair and full investigation” into their ties to Chinese intelligence-gathering operations, and recommended that both U.S. government entities and private enterprises avoid doing business with the two given “long-term security risks.” It also dispensed some free advice to Chinese companies: “Quickly become more open and transparent.”
On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, netizens appeared to reach early consensus on some recommendations of their own. Chinese consumers should “boycott Apple,” and while they’re at it, American-made goods in general. Meanwhile, the Chinese government should investigate whether Apple, Microsoft, and Cisco pose risks to Chinese national security. Echoing widely-held sentiment, @対着空気丶做表情 wrote, “It’s possible that Microsoft and Apple equipment has been used in espionage activities directed at the Chinese people, risking China’s national security. The Chinese government should avoid using these two companies’ equipment, and Chinese businesses should search for replacement suppliers.”
By day’s end, Editor Hu Xijin (@胡锡进) of the hard-line Global Times had published what he called an “editorial call[ing] for China to take protection of its corporations seriously and not be afraid to take revenge against such actions. China has to make America and Europe understand that if Chinese companies encounter injustice on their turf, some of their companies will become scapegoats in China.”
Calls for boycotts arose from a widespread sense that the House report was nothing more than an exercise in realpolitik, what @DominateL called “trade protectionism in disguise.” @友为99 sighed, “The U.S. is just being the U.S., they only think of protectionism, everything is a threat to their national security.” @隆中赋 complained, “For a country that opposes the United States, every business from that country has the possibility of being a spy.”
Of course, implementing a boycott–or revenge of any sort–won’t be easy, and netizens seemed to know it. @痒痒挠73 observed, “Many of the key systems and servers in Chinese banks are from IBM, without IBM domestic banks won’t have a way to open accounts.” Consumers may not have a choice either; @艾泽拉斯的银叶草 wrote, “Right now the only [mobile] operating systems are Apple and Android, and they’re both American.” Some Chinese may also be weary of boycotts after recent anti-Japanese protests engulfed the country. @Joneking seemed incredulous: “We were just boycotting Japanese goods, now we’re boycotting American goods?”
In addition to the practical difficulty of extricating tightly-integrated American products from daily Chinese life, netizens questioned their government’s backbone. In response to Editor Hu’s comment, @河南凯锋 wrote, “The question is: Does China dare? When the U.S. demanded we cease inspections of genetically modified foods, the relevant organs didn’t inspect; [when] others in the U.S. admitted that they were conducting experiments with genetically-modified golden rice on Chinese children, the relevant organs over here didn’t say a thing about it.” @至紧要静心 complained, “The government’s attitude is soft as always; why can’t [they] announce in a loud voice that they’re investigating whether Microsoft, IBM, Apple, [and] Cisco are threats to Chinese national security? Why can’t they announce in a loud voice that China is going to bring up enterprises to replace [them]?”
But @至紧要静心 may have answered his own question when he lamented the “shark-fin-eating, maotai-sipping” big-wigs in state-owned enterprises like Sinopec. At present, American products forged in the crucible of a market economy may simply be harder to replace than Chinese products, many of them produced by businesses coddled by the state. As @奔忙的达尔达尼昂 wrote, “All Chinese-made goods can be replaced, they don’t have an essential competitiveness, how can they compare to the American imperialists?” Others blamed the U.S., and not China, for this schism. @不沉默的大多数 asked rhetorically, “Is America secure only when Chinese companies make hats and socks and not high-tech products?”
Indeed, the emerging international tiff raises much larger questions about how the U.S. will handle China’s rise, and how China will reform an economy that uneasily marries market competition with “socialist characteristics.” A prominent blogger with the handle @美国客 opined, “Yes, corporations from U.S. allies are treated a bit better, but you can see shades of [protectionism] in the trouble with Toyota cars and the lawsuit between Samsung and Apple. Rejection of state-owned enterprises and a socialist economy is just one part of it; the root of the problem is mutual distrust on a strategic level. The U.S. is worried about the uncertainties brought about by the rise of China. Even if Huawei had been turned upside down by investigations, it would not resolve the problem because companies like Huawei are not the cause of the problem.”
Some netizens argued that China would have to change first. @龙行天天下 wrote, “The U.S. will stop being this way only when the Communist Party gets out of private enterprise.” It’s worth noting that the Party’s influence is not limited to Chinese companies. While the House report stressed that “Party Committees” within Huawei and ZTE constituted “a shadow source of power and influence,” Chinese media have variously reported that foreign companies such as Carrefour, Standard Chartered Bank, and Nokia Siemens also have such committees embedded in their Chinese operations.
With Huawei and ZTE’s American prospects essentially scuttled, it appears to be China’s turn to react. Unless a boycott gathers unlikely steam, China’s near-term policy options are limited. @勤奋蝶恋花_2008 suggested that “China should let Google, Facebook and Twitter enter the Chinese market,” perhaps inviting American reciprocity. @BrokenWindows‘s suggestion was less ambitious, but perhaps easier for a cynical online populace to embrace: “It’s time to bribe some U.S. Senators.”