What should happen when an employee’s tweet is condemned by an authoritarian regime — and key business partner? The National Basketball Association has publicly grappled with this question in recent weeks after a team executive liked a tweet expressing solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. Chinese fans, businesses, and officials reacted angrily, threatening the NBA’s future in its most lucrative international market. The league’s initial response brought bipartisan condemnation from American politicians while simultaneously failing to defuse the anger in China.
This article details similar issues faced by businesses across industries in China. After listing Tibet and Taiwan as independent countries in an online survey, hotel chain Marriott International published an obsequious apology stating that it “will absolutely not support any separatist organization that will undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Prominent jeweler Tiffany & Co. apologized for a social media photo that bore an unintentional resemblance to a protest symbol. And in the wake of the NBA controversy, gaming company Blizzard Entertainment banned a player for a “divisive and deliberate” display of support for the Hong Kong protesters.
More broadly, modern businesses operate across dozens of countries with disparate values and laws. Leaders can be thrust into controversy at a moment’s notice and without any intention. Their responses, and the resulting consequences for firms, countries, and stakeholders caught in the crossfire, will have major ramifications for economic and social progress in the coming decades.