WASHINGTON -- U.S. Vice President Mike Pence wants large corporations to choose between standing up for American values and restraining their own speech to please China and retain access to its vast market.
In a fiery speech here Thursday, Pence slammed Nike and the National Basketball Association over what he saw as their weak-kneed responses to Chinese pressure regarding Hong Kong.
"In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary" of that authoritarian regime, he said.
And "when American corporations, professional sports, pro athletes embrace censorship, it's not just wrong; it's un-American," Pence said.
Chinese state television stopped broadcasting NBA games, and Chinese retailers pulled related merchandise, after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters this month. Morey deleted the post and apologized. Nike yanked Rockets merchandise from Chinese shelves.
NBA players including star Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James have distanced themselves from the tweet.
"Far too many American multinational corporations have kowtowed to the lure of China's money and markets," Pence said Thursday.
With President Donald Trump seeking swift results from a trade deal with China to boost his 2020 reelection bid, Pence is widely seen as playing bad cop to appease China hawks in the administration. But his comments could also signal a larger shift in Washington.
The U.S. government cannot directly interfere in private businesses, which have a duty to their shareholders to maximize profit. But American companies also risk political and public fallout back home if they pull their punches on China to expand there.
The Trump administration does not seek to "decouple" from China, Pence emphasized Thursday. But Pence was clearly asking U.S. corporations to make up their minds on where they stand. Businesses in Asia will have to make that decision as well.