After last week’s column, I really wanted to get back to the bread and butter of technology in China. But the events of the past few days have made that quite difficult: The NBA has seen major backlash in China (where their official streams are hosted by Tencent) after Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted about the Hong Kong protests on October 4th. US Senator Marco Rubio (an avowed China hawk) is calling on the Trump administration to begin an investigation into Bytedance’s purchase of Musical.ly on national security grounds, something TechNode predicted months ago when the company was having problems in India.

Before we go any further, I want to make it very clear: TechNode does not take any position on political matters. Our mission is to inform the world about China through the lens of technology. In order to do that, we “seek truth from facts” so that you, the reader, can glean actionable insights into this complex market. I hope I do that mission justice with this essay.

Bottom line: The friction between disparate value systems is increasing with no end in sight. A post by a private individual to a Western public social media platform blocked in China that touched on a sensitive political issue has been interpreted as an affront to the Chinese people and the nation’s sovereignty. On the flip side, TikTok, the only Chinese-managed content platform to take off in the West, is being targeted for their alleged censorship of issues deemed sensitive to Chinese government. Taking both of these events at face value is, of course, naive. Doing so, however, offers a great opportunity to explore important points of conflict.

A tale of three value systems: Ken Wilber, a prolific writer and speaker, throughout his career attempted to integrate Western science (hard and soft) with Eastern philosophy. I first came across his work in university and have found some of it a useful heuristic for understanding all types of conflict. In particular, his typology of value systems is useful here. I’ll give a brief introduction to my understanding of it:

  • Truth-conformist: Convinced of a transcendent order and believes their group’s system is the only correct one. Values the group over the individual. Historical examples: Catholic Europe, the USSR, fundamentalist religion.
  • Rational-scientific: Pursues an objective view of the world and prefers to use observable data to explain phenomena. Believes in achievement and risk-taking. Values individual over group. Historical examples: the Scientific Revolution, capitalism
  • Postmodern-pluralistic: Holds that there are many different ways to perceive truth and believes that no single interpretation is better than any other. Values the group over the individual. Historical examples: postmodernism, critical theory, environmentalism.

These, of course, are generalizations and aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s often no easy way to clearly delineate where one might end and the other begin in a society, country, or individual. In the US, we can see three value systems playing out currently to chaotic effect. In China, the first two play a major role while the third is emerging, but is currently subordinated and directed by the first two.

Nothing new with NBA: When Morey went on Twitter, I doubt he expected a government-level response. As he tweeted soon after, he was making the statement as a private citizen, not as a representative of the Rockets or the NBA. China, however, has a storied history of making sure others, individuals and groups, conform to their version of the world. Whether that’s Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, or any other topic with a domestically accepted truth, individuals and companies need to be careful if they want to avoid collective punishment. Interestingly enough, when someone comments on a sensitive issue, Chinese official media and representatives are very quick to make statements regarding the “feelings” of the Chinese people as well as the “sovereignty” of the Chinese nation. In effect, they are drawing upon postmodern values of empathy and anti-colonialism to defend the primacy of their truth-conformist version of the world.

While China has isolated its internet from the rest of the world, that doesn’t mean it’s not paying attention. Part of its social management project is controlling the narrative, no matter where that happens.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way: Soon after the offending tweet, China’s tech giants started damage control. Tencent suspended NBA preseason broadcast plans. E-commerce platforms operated by JD and Alibaba have removed Houston Rockets merchandise while smartphone maker Vivo, a significant sponsor, said it would stop all cooperation with the NBA. However, this doesn’t mean that Chinese fans are suddenly going to stop watching.

Anti-NBA voices are the loudest doesn’t mean that most Chinese people feel the same way. There’s a thriving grey market for illegal streams of live sports events, usually pirated from Taiwan television stations. Indeed, the Lakers-Nets pre-season game in Shanghai saw a full crowd.

A Chinese platform in America: Given the overt control of the political narratives domestically, it’s not a difficult jump of logic to assume that Chinese companies would follow similar policies abroad. However, just as Apple has to conform to Chinese laws and standards for their products in that country, so too does Bytedance in the US.

The Trump administration has blocked imports and tried to cut off Chinese tech companies’ supply chains. Most recently, it has floated kicking them off US capital markets. If they can’t quell accusations that they’re undermining US values, these risks will grow under any administration.

According to the company, all of their international platforms are localized and have local teams working to make better and more compliant products for the local market. In the US, the company has around 200 people working on TikTok where their content and moderation policies for the US market are created and maintained. There is, however, a discrepancy in their Chinese-language search results.

As analyst Ben Thompson pointed out earlier this week, the search results on TikTok are vastly different when searching in Chinese and English. When he searched for Lakers, Warriors, and Rockets, he found a plethora of content related to the teams. The same searches in Chinese (huren, yongshi, and huojian) showed similar results for the first two teams, but a conspicuous lack of the last. TechNode independently replicated Thompson’s search and found similar discrepancies.

This could be explained by the fact that not many Chinese speakers are on TikTok or that huojian is also in the name of a popular girl band Huojian Shaonv, but it’s still difficult to believe given the pre-kerfuffle popularity of the Rockets in China and the ready availability of other teams’ content when searched for in Chinese.

Another plausible explanation is that content suggestion algorithms designed and optimized from Beijing could have mistakenly been propagated into TikTok’s Chinese search results. This, of course, assumes good faith on the part of Bytedance, an assumption detractors like Marco Rubio are unlikely to make.

Uncertainty is the only certainty: All of this goes to show that, in the current climate, you really can’t separate politics from business. This is very unfortunate. There are many on all sides who believe that open and respectful dialogue should be the way forward. Their voices, however, are drowned out by louder ones seeking conflict and confrontation.

The size of the gap in value systems makes conflict inevitable. While Chinese nationalism is still a force to be reckoned with, official media has toned down the wrath. This could be a signal that they want to make sure Chinese pride doesn’t get out of hand, as they almost did in 2012, it could also be an olive branch ahead of further trade talks.

For investors and entrepreneurs, the lesson is clear: understanding what is sensitive is yet another barrier to success in China.

John Artman

John Artman is the Editor in Chief for TechNode, the leading English information source for news and insight into China’s tech and startups, and co-host of the China Tech Talk podcast, a regular discussion...

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