American CEOs Should Know Free Speech Underlies CSR

The NBA's recent run in with China shows that some companies have forgotten their first corporate social responsibility.

America has done an excellent job of exporting capitalism around the world. But if the nation’s biggest companies fail to protect the values and freedoms that have made the U.S. a global business leader in the first place, they threaten their own futures at home and abroad.

The aftermath of a tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong shows that many of America’s leading companies have forgotten their first “corporate social responsibility”: to protect and defend the unique U.S. institutions—such as free speech—that allowed them to flourish in the first place.

Those who have condemned Morey or waffled in their support, including the NBA and superstar LeBron James, should be ashamed. They are playing into an obvious exercise in Chinese realpolitik: proving that the leaders of the world’s most emergent power can chill free speech not only at home but in America, too.

If China can so easily intimidate and back away U.S. CEOs from supporting the crucialAmerican ideals of democracy and greater freedom abroad, the future of American businesses to succeed and grow globally is in jeopardy.

Corporate social responsibility has been a focus of the nation’s C-suite for the past 20 years, and that has made life better. Consumers and citizens have benefited from more transparency in their products and services, an increased sense of environmental stewardship, and a focus on helping disadvantaged communities, among other things.

But being able to relate to their customers on more personal and political levels—even while prioritizing profit-making for shareholders—is something these companies can do only because the U.S. protects their right to speak freely. Our government doesn’t coerce them into any opinion.

By contrast, China’s repressive regime has used this moment to further punish its own dissenting citizens and has tried to leverage its economic relationships with U.S. companies that show the slightest support for democracy and free speech.

China’s state TV canceled NBA exhibition games last week as a punitive response to the Morey situation. Following that, companies like Vans and Tiffany & Co. have decided to rescind marketing that expresses any kind of political support for the protesters. Apple shut down an app that had helped crowd-source protesters in Hong Kong, arguing it didn’t want to put anyone in harm’s way. That’s a disappointment, coming from a company that’s such a defender of free speech and privacy rights in the U.S.

But this sort of scenario should be no surprise to American companies that have chosen to establish a significant presence in China. They were all aware of the political intolerance in China before deciding to do business there, and they should have known such stark incongruencies between the U.S. and Chinese approaches to freedom could create problems.

So any attempt by the NBA or other companies to now make themselves more acceptable to authoritarian sympathizers in China is already complicated, not to mention bad for their popularity in the U.S. market.

Consider that lawmakers in Washington can’t agree on anything. But politicians across the aisle—from Republicans Ben Sasse and Ted Cruz to Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—agree it is shameful that American companies are allowing China to silence Americans.

This summer, close to 200 CEOs of many of America’s largest and most successful companies signed a statement through the Business Roundtable that identified multiple new stakeholders—not just shareholders—and committed to deliver value to all of them “for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.”

Caring about the future of our country means supporting free speech and protecting the freedoms and values that position American corporate leaders to actually be good corporate citizens in the first place.

Chaz Cirame is president and founder of Cc:External Affairs, a firm that advises companies and trade associations on how to change public policy. He is one of the nation’s foremost experts regarding how NGOs and influencers affect public policy.