China’s human-rights abuses aren’t new, nor are the hassles they have routinely created for global companies. Labor activists, for instance, have regularly accused the Chinese factories that supply international firms of treating workers poorly, leaving major brands scrambling to repair sullied reputations. Several countries, including the U.S., imposed economic sanctions on China after the massacre of prodemocracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
For the most part, though, chief executives have been able to invest, manufacture, and market in China unimpeded by human-rights issues. The U.S. government complained about Beijing’s suppression of dissent and individual rights, but not enough to hamper the flows of capital and trade. After all, many in Washington believed, the bonds of business would eventually soften the harsh Communist regime. Chinese authorities, meanwhile, whined that criticism amounted to “interference” in their domestic affairs but were too desperate for foreign capital and technology to do much more.