Last week, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted out a message in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. For a little context, the Houston Rockets are enormously popular in China, thanks to the efforts of the most famous Chinese basketball player ever, Yao Ming. The relationship between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and China extends past the Rockets, as the league has a reported $1.5 billion streaming deal with Chinese social media company Tencent. The company released a statement in the past week saying it will no longer stream Rockets games, despite the popularity of the team in China. The Chinese government promptly ordered the removal of posters promoting the Nets preseason game, looking to erase any symbol of what they characterize as “American interference.”
The response from the NBA higher-ups and members of the Rockets organization has been disgraceful in the social justice sense. The owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, issued a statement saying that Morey does not speak for the organization, claiming the Rockets organization is not a political one. This argument holds little weight, given Fertitta’s public appearances endorsing President Trump. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, on the other hand, faced a major dilemma as the NBA’s boss. Should he support the freedom of speech of one of his employees, or should he bow to the pressure of an authoritarian state in exchange for the billions generated by the league’s presence in China? The answer initially seemed to be the latter. With billions of dollars at stake, Silver’s NBA put out a pathetic press release, apologizing for offending customers in China and saying Morey does not represent the league—and the league’s Mandarin translation of the tweet, posted on Chinese social media site Weibo, was far more critical of Morey and more apologetic towards the Chinese government. Silver later walked back on the comment, but only after American backlash.
American political responses across the spectrum have supported Morey’s right to express his opinions. He received supportive tweets from Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both of whom criticized the NBA for suppressing the free speech of an American citizen. President Trump also weighed in, lashing out at Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for staying silent when asked questions about the conflict. For Kerr, who coaches the Warriors, one of the most popular teams in China, any comment on the protests could further damage the NBA’s brand. However, Trump correctly points out that the same players and coaches who criticize him daily have refused to speak out over free speech issues in another country.
I’m not blind to the realities of doing business in China under the Chinese Communist Party. For years, companies have self-censored in order to maintain a presence in an enormous and growing Chinese middle-class market. One example is Google, which came under fire for building a search engine that would allow third parties (like Chinese censorship teams) to block information flow to Chinese citizens. Facebook is supposedly pursuing a similar strategy, in the hope of obtaining access to an enormous market. Businesses are not the only ones who will let themselves be pushed around by the Chinese government in exchange for access. Tiffany and Co. came under fire for a tweet that allegedly supported injured Hong Kong protestors, one which the company ended up deleting. The Chinese government was also angered by the actions of Apple, which released an app that allowed Hong Kong protestors to track the movements of police in the city. An article by a state newspaper denounced the “poisonous app” and claimed it betrayed the feelings of Chinese people. Academics have reported harassment for publishing papers critical of the Communist Party, and have withheld these papers for fear of losing visa access to the country. As South Park’s twitter eloquently states, “You gotta lower your ideals of freedom if you wanna suck on the warm teat of China.” Finally, ESPN issued a warning to employees about discussing the politics in China and told them to focus on the “sports” aspect of the issue. This corporate surrender to the Chinese government is an embarrassment to the United States.
These issues surrounding business and access to China are going nowhere. There was a time when Western observers thought bringing free markets to China would bring democracy as well. However, Beijing has shown its ability to embrace capitalism and the growth that comes with it, while finding creative ways to use technology to monitor its citizens and force them into quasi-concentration camps. The regime even exports this digital surveillance technology, aiding authoritarian regimes across the world.
For the time being, the West needs to treat the Chinese government as the authoritarian regime that it is. This means not allowing its restrictive freedom of speech laws to carry over to the United States, simply because the NBA fears for its bottom line. This means American businesses need to grow a spine and assert themselves in dealing with the Chinese government and not give in to censorship demands. The Chinese Communist Party is the greatest geopolitical threat to liberal democracy in the world, and it is unfortunate to see the NBA shrink in the face of this problem.
Jack Leger is a member of 2021 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.