This was in April 2013. Disney’s 2009 gamble on Marvel had paid off well with 2012’s Avengers movie garnering $1.5 billion worldwide. The next big release was of Iron Man-3, the last solo outing of Robert Downey Jr in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When reports of Mandarin being played by Sir Ben Kingsley emerged, fans were rightfully excited about how the character would take shape.
Mandarin, as a fictional comic book character, has superhero physical abilities, can run without food or water for years, and was born in China. The character was created in 1964 by Stan Lee.
However, even with a collection of $1.2 billion worldwide, the character of Mandarin in Iron Man-3 left fans disappointed. Against what the fans had anticipated, the character of Mandarin had been reduced to a poor imitation, a fake.
Further, audiences in China were privileged to watch four extra minutes of footage in the movie with leading actors from China performing cameos.
The Mandarin alteration was a sign of things to come. Not intending to get on the wrong side of China’s censors or locals, the plot of Iron Man-3 was altered.
Mandarin was no longer the Chinese supervillain the world feared but a drunken struggling actor. This was as preposterous as the Joker not being the Joker or Batman not being Bruce Wayne but some cheap imitation of him without the skills.
The alteration paid off and the movie made $121 million in China alone. The lesson was obvious — the market in China could not be ignored.
More than 6 years later, the National Basketball Association (NBA) found itself at a similar crossroads. It all started with a tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of Houston Rockets.
The tweet, an image, read ‘Stand with Hong Kong’, and predictably threatened NBA’s $4 billion business in China.
NBA cannot be merely categorised as one of the many Western offerings in China. The tournament attained 490 million viewers last season, thus making it China’s most popular international sporting event.
Yet, as a result of the tweet, NBA found itself alienated by the Chinese Basketball Association — the latter threatened to snap ties with Houston Rockets. The team merchandise was also taken off from the stores across the country.
The broadcasting partner, CCTV, and Tencent, the league’s streaming partner, announced that they would not broadcast the two pre-season games between LA Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.
These two teams are in China for the games. In the last decade, pre-season games have become routine in China.
Houston Rockets’ history with China did not help either. While basketball has always been popular in this part of the world, it was the presence of the 7.5-feet-tall Yao Ming — who was with the team from 2002 to 2009 — that was crucial. The popularity of Ming in China popularised Houston Rockets as ‘China’s team’.
Eventually, the game was aired but the censors had won. In the US, people with banners or raising slogans in support of the Hong Kong protests were asked to leave the NBA premises during the pre-season games.
The bigger headache, however, was not in the NBA arena, but at Apple’s headquarters. Over the last few years, Apple’s presence in China — even in the face of stiff competition from state-backed tech conglomerates with access to cheap credit — has culminated in a $50-billion business.
The trouble began on App Store. An app designed to assist protesters in Hong Kong to track the police was uploaded on the App Store. The app helped protestors looking to deceive cops in Hong Kong. But authorities in China soon took notice.
Blamed for “helping rioters”, Apple found itself in the midst of an unwanted controversy.The app was pulled down, reinstated, and then again removed from App Store.
The muck does not stop there. Apple, in its iOS 13 update, has removed the flag of Taiwan for users in Hong Kong and Taiwan, thus bending to the diktats of the Chinese Communist Party.
Earlier this week, Quartz, a news app, also faced the removal of its Chinese version from App Store, given the portal’s unbiased coverage of the Hong Kong protests.
Apple, NBA, and Disney are not the only victims in this story. The other Western companies bullied by China include JW Marriott, Lancome, Tiffany, Cathay Pacific, Air Canada, US’ Delta Airlines, Gap, Zara, Dolce & Gabbana, Union Bank of Switzerland, Mercedes-Benz, and Lotte from South Korea, to name a selected few.
The issue of contention may range from a tweet to an incorrect map representation.
The bullying works, always, because of the following reasons.
Firstly, the market size. Be it Apple with its $50 billion business in the country or Disney eyeing a $200 million collection for one of its movies, China’s market is indispensable.
Secondly, the capacity building that the Chinese have invested in for years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading researchers and think-tanks in the West had dismissed the idea of China attaining tech supremacy.
Today, China has companies like Huawei that are emerging as new global tech giants. Thus, even if a company were to leave China for the love of freedom, the country could easily find an alternative to it.
Thirdly, a population wired to think as the government wants it to. The state-backed media and a dictatorial social credit system have killed voices of dissent.
The effect of decades of brainwashing was witnessed when millions of Chinese flooded news portals of the West, backing the Communist Party’s line on the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong.
For companies of the West, there are few alternatives.
While the trade war, optimistically, may find a solution to the problem of intellectual property theft and market accessibility, there is little hope that companies can escape Chinese bullying.
The West had hoped that China would change and open up to the world, accepting the rule-based order. Instead, China has doubled down on its tactics.
Companies which speak out for independence and against government interference in the West are forced to allow the Communist Party to dictate terms in China.
Perhaps, it’s about time the world comes to terms with companies having dual-identities: one for China and another for the rest of the world.
Unlike the Chinese economy, there is nothing opaque about Chinese bullying. It’s reckless, rogue, and now, routine.
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