Walt Disney and the Chinese State
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese government has censored one episode of “The Simpsons” from Walt Disney’s streaming service in Hong Kong or, we don’t know, it may be the company itself that self-censored (Dan Strumpf, “Disney’s Missing ‘Simpsons’ Episode in Hong Kong Raises Censorship Fears,” November 29, 2021):
Yet one episode is missing from “The Simpsons” lineup: Titled “Goo Goo Gai Pan,” the episode from season 16 centers on a trip to China by the show’s namesake family. Along the way they encounter a plaque at Tiananmen Square in Beijing that reads: “On this site, in 1989, nothing happened.” …
It isn’t known if Disney removed the episode under pressure, or whether it decided itself to leave the episode out of its lineup when it launched the Disney+ service in Hong Kong earlier in November. Representatives for Disney didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Office of the Communications Authority, which oversees broadcasters in the city, declined to comment.
The whole thing is rather funny, but of course not for the poor Chinese subject to government censorship. That businesses have incentives to pander to the state or even to sensitive groups of private customers is a real problem for (other) consumers and, in this case, for freedom of speech. The problem, however, is much mitigated if not eliminated by the fact that other businesses have an incentive to compete and cater to neglected consumers. Competition if not repressed solves the problem.
Whether Disney self-censors or accepts to be censored by staying in China, we should not refrain from calling the company’s behavior shameful. Similarly for private companies that cooperated with the Nazi government or for American companies that now crawl before the woke mob. Ethically, it seems that one should not do just anything to keep one’s access to a market; the end does not justify the means. There is a crucial difference, though, between the consequences of shameful behavior by private companies, which are attenuated by competition; and the consequences of shameful behavior by governments, which face little competition because they restrict or ban it. The problem is not self-interest, but competition bans.