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April 7, 2021


By chipping away at China’s sense of its own invincibility, we can gradually change the climate that also encourages Beijing to believe it can take hostages, like the two Michaels, with impunity.

As China ramps up the pressure on democracies across the world—throwing in the recent Stalinist-era denunciation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “running dog of the U.S.”for good measure—the delicate question of how to push back against Beijing’s bullying without escalating the situation still further returns to centre stage.

With the two Michaels, Kovrig and Spavor facing trumped-up charges of espionage after more than two years in Chinese jails, and now the imposition of sanctions against Conservative MP Michael Chong and others for raising the plight of the oppressed Uyghurs, Canada is becoming a case study on a mid-sized democracy confronting the 21st century’s mightiest authoritarian regime.

What is to be done? There is a lot of talk about democracies uniting their combined diplomatic and economic leverage to tame Beijing’s aggression. As a long-term, geo-political strategy, that is eminently sensible.

But we have to understand that this is not only a challenge for governments and their diplomats. Ordinary citizens have a role to play, too. China’s bully-boy tactics are being deployed against democracies across the board, including the popular culture that we all participate in.

Consider Top Gun: Maverick, Paramount Pictures’ sequel to the 1980s blockbuster scheduled for release this July. If you go to see it—and think hard about this before you decide to do so—look closely at Tom Cruise’s signature leather jacket. Originally, it featured a patch displaying the U.S., UN, Japanese, and Taiwanese flags. The last two have now been swapped out, possibly in deference to Chinese sensitivities. In the world’s second-biggest movie market, there are billions of dollars at stake. There’s a litany of such cowardly examples from the world of entertainment, ranging from self-censorship over Tibet in the Marvel comic-book inspired 2016 movie Doctor Strange to the grovelling apology to Beijing issued by the NBA in 2019 after Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets had posted a Tweet in support of the people of Hong Kong.

As things stand, Beijing can only draw the conclusion that bullying works. And that is because movie companies and sports stars only face pressure from one side. If Beijing denies them access to its markets, there will be a price to pay. But as responsible citizens, we have the power to alter that calculus of risk. If we refuse to go to see movies whose makers have acquiesced in the demands of an authoritarian regime, we attach a price tag to that acquiescence. If enough of us tell the icons of popular culture that they will lose our support and our custom if they participate in injustice, they will have to listen. By chipping away at China’s sense of its own invincibility, we can gradually change the climate that also encourages Beijing to believe it can take hostages, like the two Michaels, with impunity.

And anyone who thinks that it is only politicians that have a role to play in confronting injustice should recall an episode from the American south in 1964. In that year, on their first American tour, the Beatles were booked to play the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. Shocked to discover their audience was to be divided along racial lines, they refused to perform unless the stadium was desegregated. It was a bold move. This was a critical juncture in the careers of working-class lads from Liverpool, fighting for a piece of the lucrative American music market. Despite indignant murmurings in the local press, they got their way. “I’d sooner lose our appearance money,” John Lennon said of the affair.

More than half a century later, we could do with leadership like that from our wealthy and privileged celebrities. They are not being asked to take a vow of poverty, or to stand in front of a Chinese tank. They just have to recognize their place on the scales of human justice, and act on it. If they won’t, remember that the contents of our pockets have weight, too. Our choices matter in this difficult and dangerous standoff with China. It’s time to make them count.

Robin Shepherd is vice-president of Halifax International Security Forum, and author of China vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game.

Published in The Hill Times

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