Late in the evening of Friday, October 4th the NBA’s Houston Rocket’s General Manager Daryl Morely tweeted out some support for the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. Little did Morely know the political and commercial firestorm he set in motion with that simple gesture.
Initially the NBA, represented by commissioner Adam Silver, reprimanded Morely and sought to assuage their Chinese Business partners and by extension the Chinese Communist Regime over the comments. Morely deleted the tweet and apologized. Rocket’s owner Tilman Fertitta distanced himself and the Organization from Morely.
Brooklyn Nets’ owner Joe Tsai, a Chinese businessman, further condemned Morely’s comments in a open letter penned on Facebook. His response illuminates the political consequences of the situation. Tsai writes “Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.” After a truncated history of foreign meddling in China’s internal affairs, Tsai offered that “I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been.” The basic plot, if you want to do business in China, you’d better play ball by Chinese rules.
While this seems a fair critique, it’s important to contextualize the relationship between China and the United States regarding entertainment. At the same time this controversy erupted, the legendary satirists Trey Park and Matt Stone enraged the Chinese Communists by lampooning them in the second episode of their 23rd season of South Park. The cartoon cleverly drew attention to the fact that domestic American entertainment is being massaged by Chinese interests to ensure that Hollywood is not shut out from the hundreds of millions of paying Chinese customers. The Chinese Government responded by “cancelling” South Park, effectively wiping it clean off of the Chinese internet and broadcast networks. Trey and Matt responded in the best possible way, with a satirical apology that also roasted the NBA for kowtowing to these Chinese Communist demands.
This opened the floodgates for criticism against the NBA, its commissioner, and some of its most progressive personalities. How could they on one hand support progressive policies at home, allow their coaches and players to disparage American politics, yet play ball with a thuggish authoritarian regime that despises the very freedom these progressives suggest that they care so much about? Outlets from the New York Times to Breitbart (who now has a headline NBA ’s Communist China) railed against the hypocrisy. This seemed to work, as early on October 8th, Adam Silver penned a defence of free speech and the ability of all NBA personnel to voice their beliefs no matter the commercial consequences from China.
One of Silver’s written remarks gives us a chance to historically capture the moment between the NBA and the Chinese Communists, as sport has been used diplomatically in the past with both success and failure. Silver wrote “At a time when divides between nations grow deeper and wider, we believe sports can be a unifying force that focuses on what we have in common as human beings rather that our differences.”
This view of sport as a promoter of international peace began in the modern period with Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman responsible for reigniting the ancient Olympics in the Modern format and for founding the International Olympic Committee. The basic idea was that countries could compete peacefully in sport, as opposed to violently on the battlefield. But more often we’ve seen sport provide a cover for diplomacy, as the Olympic Movement has been largely unsuccessful in promoting peace and universal human rights.
Regarding the US and China, Richard Nixon’s successful “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” paved a way for a softening of communist economic policies in China towards a more open commercial society and the tremendous growth of the Chinese middle class over the past few decades. Scholar Mayumi Itoh detailed in The Origins of Ping-Pong Diplomacy the crucial role of Japanese businessman Goto Koji in facilitating the American Table Tennis teams’ visit to China after the 1971 World Championships held in Japan. She argued persuasively that international sport and private individuals can positively affect international relations.
But the Communist Regime has legitimate concerns regarding the role of culture to undermine their authoritarian control at home. It was blue jeans and rock and roll that converted millions of young Soviets in the 1980s to demand greater political and economic freedom, contrasted to their deteriorating living standards. Historian Toby Rider in Cold War Games documented how the American government used the Olympics to engage in subversion, notably by helping Eastern Bloc athletes’ defect and escape their Communist “chaperones.” There’s a solid history of the capitalist west using sport against its ideological Communist opponents. It’s why the Chinese Communists swiftly banned the Houston Rockets organization, cancelled a few G-League games, and demanded abasement from Silver and the NBA over Morely’s comments.
Ultimately, this rift between the NBA and China may seem a minor blip in business as usual between the American business community and Chinese authorities, but I think it represents a potential watershed. The crackdowns on democracy protestors in Hong Kong, the internment of over 1 million Uighur Muslins in Xianjing province, and the use of an Orwellian social credit system to control the lives of over 1 billion Chinese individuals has shown that the Chinese Communists have no plan to cede political domination despite opening up their economy to great benefit.
Furthermore, the subtle subversion of American ideals, namely freedom of expression and speech by affecting entertainment and sport, shows that the Communists have no beef using culture as a diplomatic tool. It’s time to wake up to the fact that the Chinese Communist regime is using its commercial heft to spread their social ideals. Play by our rules or you have no access to our market. Professional sports leagues like the NBA now must calculate whether principles rule over dollars. Hopefully, they more consistently choose principle.