Tencent and TikTok appear to follow the Chinese government's line on censorship at home and abroad. Imagine what could be expected of Huawei, ZTE and Alibaba Cloud in the future
Amid the arguments over whether Huawei and ZTE should be allowed to bid for 5G network contracts there has always been one crucial thing lacking: cold, hard evidence - evidence to back-up US government claims that the two Chinese companies could, and ever have, use their communications hardware to spy on customer network traffic.
Or, at least, nothing that has been publicly disclosed - just plenty of claims, insinuations and references to Article 7 of China's National Intelligence Law, which obliges Chinese citizens and corporates to cooperate with the country's security services on request, no questions asked.
However, events of the past week indicate that not only might Huawei and ZTE not be trustworthy, but that any organisation considering entrusting its systems and data to the Alibaba Cloud should also, perhaps, factor in the cost of political risk insurance, too.
It isn't just one event from the past week that ought to make network operators and companies think twice.
If China's government can throw its toys out of the pram over an NBA coach's tweet or a gamer's post-match outburst, imagine what it could do over something more serious
First, of course, there was the pro-Hong Kong tweet by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the National Basketball Association (NBA) team the Houston Rockets. "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong," he had tweeted, as protests by pro-democracy demonstrators continued into their seventh month.
Although ordinary Chinese are barred from Twitter and, hence, the tweet wouldn't even have been seen by the average citizen of Shenzhen, the repercussions were swift: national broadcaster CCTV stopped broadcasting NBA basketball games in China, where the game is (for some reason) popular. More intriguingly, perhaps, the NBA's supposedly private online streaming partner in China, Tencent, followed suit.
The move by Tencent is significant. While it is supposedly a private company, in practice Tencent moved every bit as swiftly to stop transmissions of NBA matches as the national broadcaster did. The moved exposed the hollow claim that Chinese companies could not be compelled to do the bidding of China's government.
Tencent has become a global gaming giant, partly on the back of its protected dominance of the Chinese market, but also thanks to the favouritism of China's government in terms of various subsidies, such as cheap land to build its own campuses.
This assistance has helped it to grow fast and to acquire stakes or outright ownership of games publishers and developers across the world, including Riot Games; PUBG Corporation; Epic, the company behind Fortnite; Paradox Interactive; Grinding Gear Games; and, Activision Blizzard.
Tencent also enjoys a protected status within its home market, meaning that it can acquire monopoly rights to popular games for the Chinese market, such as Rocket League, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG), and Stardew Valley. This ‘protection' also provided it with the platform to launch its own alternative to Steam, the popular PC gaming portal, as well as a games console purely for the Chinese market, based on its protected rights.
In return, Tencent helpfully censors anything the CCP wants on its WeChat platform, both in China and among users overseas. It no doubt owes the Party a lot in return for its protected status.
But the NBA/Tencent business isn't a one-off. As if to demonstrate that this will be the future, not just of China but the world if China and, hence, the CCP emerges as the dominant world power, two other equally disturbing examples emerged over the past week.
There was also the case of the championship-winning Hearthstone player.
Hearthstone is a globally popular game made by Activision Blizzard, in which Tencent holds a five per cent stake and the usual rights in China. In a post-match outburst in Taiwan, pro-Hearthstone player Ng Wai "blitzchung" Chung ripped off his mask and shouted, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age!"
The response was swift. The Hearthstone live stream was abruptly halted, on-demand footage was pulled and, perhaps most ominous of all, Chung was banned for 12-months and fined a sum by Activision Blizzard equal to the amount he had just earned.
In the ensuing furore, the company issued two different statements - one for Western audiences and a grovellingly submissive apology intended for consumption in China.
Finally, of course, there's the case of South Park's ‘Band in China' episode that made fun of the Chinese government's enthusiastic love of censorship. That saw all traces of South Park completely expunged from Chinese social networks almost overnight.
While what goes on in China is between the people of China and its government, it appears as if even outside China the censorship continues, with the popular TikTok social media platform even joining in on a global basis when it comes to matters such as the Tiananmen Square massacre.
"These Chinese-owned apps are increasingly being used to censor content and silence open discussion on topics deemed sensitive by the Chinese government and Communist Party," wrote US Senator Marco Rubio in a letter to the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, calling for a national security review into TikTok's proposed acquisition of Muscial.ly. It continued: "These topics include Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other issues".
With censorship extending to social media networks outside of China, how would you feel now about making use of the Alibaba cloud to run your organisation's most sensitive applications? Do you trust Huawei's protestations that it could never be compelled use its communications equipment to eavesdrop on network traffic?
The point is this: If China's government can throw its toys out of the pram over such trivial perceived slights as an NBA coach's tweet or a gamer's post-match outburst, imagine what it could do over something more serious.
And if the actions of the CCP today look faintly absurd, imagine how menacing it will seem when it is even more powerful - and the sanctions it could bring to bear even greater.