South Korean K-Pop boy band BTS caused uproar in China after RM, the band's leader, thanked Korean War veterans for their sacrifices but made no mention of China. File photo from December 31, 2019, in Times Square, New York City.

South Korean K-Pop boy band BTS caused uproar in China after RM, the band's leader, thanked Korean War veterans for their sacrifices but made no mention of China. File photo from December 31, 2019, in Times Square, New York City. File Photo by: zz/John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

China or Your Soul? Pompeo’s Thunder Falls Flat on Corporate Ears

Companies keep choosing to serve the Chinese market — and that’s likely not good news for the Pentagon.

It turns out even BTS Army is no match for the People’s Liberation Army. Well, more precisely, not even wooing supporters of the world’s biggest K-pop boy band is more important to some companies than the world’s biggest consumer market: China. 

This week, Samsung and Hyundai pulled ads featuring the beloved boppers for fear of upsetting Beijing and losing access to about one billion pocketbooks. What was BTS’s crime? They said something nice about the Americans and Koreans who fought in the Korean War together. China, as you recall, also fought in that war. With the North. Chinese social media raged on the other side of the Pacific for being excluded in — I’ll say it once again to repeat it because it’s so absurd — what a boy band member said. And in response, some of South Korean’s giants of industry and culture took a page from American corporate and cultural icons like the NBA, Nike, and Google. When faced with the choice of losing profits in China or defending human rights, free speech, and their countrymen — ok, just the boy band members — they caved to the pressure of the purse and sided with China. 

That’s likely not good news for the Pentagon. 

Siding with China is lucrative business. For many international brands, it’s more lucrative than siding with the United States and South Korea, that’s for sure. And that’s bigger a problem for the United States than any missile the People’s Liberation Army is building to extend its armed powers. Trump administration leaders have made being tough on China the foundation of U.S. foreign policy in their final two years, eclipsing earlier priorities like Iran, North Korea, international terrorism, the Middle East’s wars and NATO. It’s just about the only foreign policy issue getting mentioned on the 2020 campaign trial anymore. For two years at least, Trump’s defense secretaries and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have given speech after speech seeking to change American and Western minds about China. They argue that China should be viewed less as an imperfect business partner or competitor, and more as a direct threat to something much deeper: our way of life. 

“This is not a rivalry between the United States and China. This is for the soul of the world,” Pompeo said, in an interview with Japanese television network NHK last week. 

That dramatic language — and a whole lot of anti-China Trump campaign advertising and messaging — has chipped away at some hearts and minds. This summer’s Chicago Council poll of American foreign policy attitudes found that Republicans most picked China (67%) as the No. 1 threat to worry about, but 60 percent of Democrats favored “friendly engagement.” Maybe the State Department should put it in a TikTok? 

On Monday, another of America’s most prominent businessmen-turned-reality TV stars, Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, threw Pompeo’s indignation right back in the face of Megyn Kelly in an interview. Kelly read aloud China’s rap sheet of evils and asked if the NBA “needs to get more vocal in what we’re seeing there,” specifically about China’s systemic campaign against Uighars.  

Cuban’s answer was probably not what Pompeo, the Pentagon, the White House, congressional Republicans and Democrats, and most of the national security establishment had wanted to hear. Faced with a question that has become, for better or worse, an us-or-them partisan ultimatum on U.S.-China relations, Cuban was nuanced and defiant and cold-heartedly capitalist. 

“China’s not the only country around the world with human rights violations,” he said at first, with a verbal crossover dribble, adding, “I’m against human rights violations anywhere, including China.” Kelly said he was dodging, and pressed why he won’t just condemn China.

“Because the way proclamations work in this country, the minute you say them anywhere you’re gonna use this as a headline,” Cuban said to Kelly. 

“What’s wrong with that headline?” she said. “Cuban Condemns Ethnic Cleansing in China.”

“Because then I gotta deal with the troll bots, then. I gotta deal with the troll bots,” Cuban said.

That’s an honest answer.

Cuban then accused Kelly — though it sounded like he was really aiming at the Trump administration — of wanting empty proclamations instead of real actions on a different issue: political refugees worldwide. He said he’s trying to increase the number of slots for asylum seekers into the United States and recounted personal work to get data on Chinese seekers out of the State Department that it doesn’t want the public to know. Kelly dismissed it as unrelated to her original question, and pressed Cuban again to say why he won’t answer her straight. That’s when Cuban cracked.

“Basically, you’re saying that nobody should do business with China, ever,” he said. “Why? Because they are a customer. They are a customer of ours, and guess what, Megan? I’m okay with doing business with China. You know, I wish I could solve all the world’s problems, Megan, and I’m sure you do, too. But we can’t. And so we have to pick our battles. And while you’d like to get proclamations so you can create a clip that says, ‘Look what I got Mark to say,’ you don’t want to deal with the actual action item.”

Cuban continued, “All these people crying for human rights, helping the people — when we find a way to help them we stop them. We don’t help them, so don’t give me all the nonsense about — ” and then Kelly cut him off with an “Ok, I got it,” as time ran out to ask if he’s going to run for president. 

Mark Cuban is not running for president, thankfully, which means it’ll be up to Pompeo and Trump, or a President Joe Biden, to convince more Americans in the next four years to reconsider what they think about China more than U.S. national security leaders have been able to do. And if they want more corporations like the NBA to condemn China and turn away from one billion customers, they’ll have to find a way into Mark Cuban’s soul — or more likely, into his pocketbook.