Activist CEOs with a double standard on social and political issues - Activate World

Activist CEOs with a double standard on social and political issues

CEOs who take activist stances on social and political issues in the U.S. seem to have a double standard when it comes to other countries. These CEOs are increasingly outspoken about issues within our borders but take a very different approach when it comes to China’s authoritarian communist party or the Saudi royal family. 

Lunchtime Conversations:

  • As a CEO or business leader, how do you balance the ethics of supporting free speech and certain freedoms in one country and not in another?
  • What will it take for major U.S. corporations to stand up for freedom of speech and civil rights knowing they may put their China operations at risk?
  • How should U.S. consumers react to brands who exhibit a double standard to stances at home versus foreign countries?


  • The Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association, and multiple Chinese businesses have severed ties with the Rockets, reports Axios’ Kendall Baker, given a tweet from the Houston team’s general manager.
  • All three big U.S. airlines — American, United, and Delta — bent to China’s will last summer and scrubbed references to Taiwan as its own country.
  • Marriott apologized to China after Beijing shut down the hotel chain’s website because it listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Macau as separate countries. “We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China,” the company said in a statement.


China is using its market power to bully American companies and organizations and muzzle free speech. Over the past few weeks, American firms have again capitulated to the Chinese government: 

  • Apple removed the app from its app store after complaints from China, citing danger to Hong Kong’s police. Its latest iOS update caused the Taiwanese flag to disappear for users in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as anybody on the mainland.
  • The NBA berated the Houston Rocket’s GM for tweeting, and then deleting, a single image supporting the Hong Kong protesters kicked off a firestorm in China. 
  • Vans pulled shoe designs that alluded to the Hong Kong movement from a global sneaker design contest.  
  • The American gaming company, Activision Blizzard (in which Chinese Tech giant Tencent has a 4.9% stake), suspended and took prize money away from a Hong Kong-based player who publicly supported the protests.

U.S. companies are weighing in on social and political issues at home due to the political gridlock in Washington. But when it comes to China — in particular to Hong Kong or mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang — they’re silent.

Leveraging foreign access to its 1.5 billion consumers is one of China’s most potent weapons against the U.S. “When it has to do with market access in China and profits … they will bend over backwards to apologize,” says Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s an authoritarian government, and the Communist Party is in control,” Glaser says. “They are able to have impact on what their citizens do, and they can mobilize their citizens to hold boycotts if they want to do that.”

Sources:  AxiosThe New York TimesVox, Vox/RecodeWired

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash