"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" has never been an outdated philosophy. It is particularly true when companies operate on foreign soil in this globally connected world.
A New York Times editorial titled "The Chinese threat to American speech" said China's pressure on foreign companies eager to make money in China poses "a dangerous and growing threat" to the freedom of expression, one of the core values of the US. It also implicitly criticized American companies for accepting restrictions set by China in exchange for their business interests.
The so-called freedom of speech has long been used as an excuse by some US and Western political and opinion elites to undermine China's interests. When NBA superstar LeBron James was seen taking China's side in the recent NBA row, he was verbally assaulted and humiliated by US netizens. The episode exactly shows the value of "freedom of speech" in the US is built on political correctness.
The Chinese market is big and is not a market without a political or value orientation, nor does it follow US capital. It is a market that embraces the mainstream sentiments of Chinese citizens. This has nothing to do with "freedom" under the Western discourse.
The Chinese people's mixed feelings of pride, hope and care with the territorial integrity of the country are embedded in the way the Chinese market hosts foreign companies. Foreign companies will inevitably experience a backlash when their actions trample on the nerve of the Chinese people.
American companies need to adapt to the Chinese market and they will certainly feel unaccustomed during this process, given the differences in how both sides define values and national interests. They have to think twice if they want to make money in China on the one hand while engaging in speeches or activities that are deemed in violation of China's core interests on the other.
Most US companies are doing well in China and a handful of them have made good deals in recent weeks. In September, PayPal clinched a license to provide digital payments. JPMorgan Chase won an auction in August that will allow the bank to control its asset management business in China.
The New York Times editorial encourages American companies to stand up against China by insisting that the companies are responsible for maintaining the commitment to free expression even if they cannot do business in China. But will the New York Times shoulder the responsibility to make up for their losses?
Western media serves a role in safeguarding Western values and guides Western society in its feelings toward China. But in China, the interests of China and the Chinese people come first.