The NBA, China and Trump

Photograph Source: Studio Incendo – CC BY 2.0

How about the hapless NBA? Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, tweeted support for the rioters in Hong Kong. The United States is openly fomenting this often quite violent insurrection. I have no idea whether Mr. Morey knew of the beating of the journalist Fu Guohao or the involvement of American official Julie Eadeh in the uprisings. The United States, without any attempt at concealment, is stirring up this violent separatist insurrection that conceals its nature by following an earlier protest against an extradition law already shelved. But, given that these riots are an attempt by the United States to destabilize China, it is not surprising that China objected.

China sees the West as having exploited, repressed and denied China its place in the world for 150 years, and they’ve got a good point. Joe Tsai, who is Chinese and a new owner of the Brooklyn Nets NBA team explains this well on his Facebook page. China is extremely sensitive to any hint of Western support for a separatist movement. Imagine how Americans would feel if, for example, we thought Vladimir Putin interfered with our elections, let alone encouraged an active southern separatist movement. So Morey’s little tweet set off a firestorm. Until that moment the NBA was wildly popular in China. We are talking billions and billions. All that changed in a moment. Sponsors canceled and media coverage blinked off.

The NBA was like Brer Rabbit caught in the tar baby. Adam Silver the NBA commissioner announced that the NBA does not restrict what its various employees might say and chose to make it a question of freedom of speech. The irony of just how little freedom anyone in the NBA had in what they said went unnoticed. Any suggestion that the Chinese might have a point was pilloried. Lebron James, the face of the NBA and its best player, suggested only that perhaps Morey didn’t know what he was talking about and he was practically hung out to dry. Donald Trump, whom the NBA had insulted in the past, declared that any recognition of the Chinese position would be “caving in.” We Americans are fighting for free speech and you better not say otherwise or else. Stupid is not always funny. Silver’s little utterance, making it all a question of free speech, was obviously supposed to somehow quiet everything down, but only made it a whole lot worse. For that meant that the NBA as a whole was now acting as a foreign agent and supporting Morey’s tweet. The Chinese answered: “We’ve noticed NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s response to the inappropriate remarks by Houston Rockets GM Morey. We are strongly unsatisfied and opposed to Adam Silver’s claim of supporting Morey’s rights of having freedom of speech,” sports channel CCTV5 said Tuesday on its social media page. “We think any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are outside the category of freedom of speech.”

At the time two teams, the Lakers and the Nets were scheduled to play two games in China. The players were immediately isolated from the Chinese media, ostensibly to prevent them from saying something “bad” by accident, but also to prevent them from possibly hearing another point of view. The NBA acted as if it were only the Chinese government who objected and the population supported the rioters who were beating people, destroying property and working with Julie Eadeh. They imagined the Chinese people were longing for more Western intervention. Here is Joe Tsai’s comment.

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.

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

Silver, obviously shaken, uncharacteristically stumbled into a statement announcing that the NBA would adhere to its values. He insisted that cancellation of TV coverage of these games was a result of his support for Morey’s right to freedom of expression, not support for the content of that expression. He seemed oblivious to the NBA’s support, in the form of Morey’s tweet, for a Western inspired and supported insurrection within China. Silver made it appear that the Chinese media objected to freedom of expression in general, and not the content of Morey’s tweet. This further enraged the Chinese, for they know, or think they know, that Silver is not completely obtuse.

The NBA’s hope lies with Yao Ming, the first Chinese NBA player, who played for, who else, the Houston Rockets, and is now the head of the Chinese Basketball Association or CBA. He, and perhaps only he, can bridge the gap. Silver had a meeting with him hoping to patch things up. At the end Silver declared “I’m hoping together that Yao Ming and I can find accommodation,” Silver said Tuesday. “But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.” Clearly, from this statement, Silver doesn’t understand it. The idea that Yao is “hot” reveal how failure to address substancecan kill you. This is not a question of an emotion even though that seems to be all Americans can comprehend these days. The Chinese are not going to cool down and forget it,. The NBA is not only in trouble with the Chinese government, but with its fans too, who may cool down in their enthusiasm for the NBA. To think that the Chinese long for Western intervention is like thinking Americans long for the return of the British.

Silver stuck yet another limb into the tar baby when he claimed that the Chinese wanted him to fire Daryl Morey because of freedom of speech, but he refused. The Chinese immediately denied that they requested this. By blurting out PC blather, Silver further angered the Chinese. The Chinese objected to inciting insurrection and separatism in China. Had Silver understood the problem he would not have uttered this lie. The Chinese are not interested in free speech or the lack of it in America. They do not care about Daryl Morey, but about Western interference in their internal affairs. It is the NBA encouraging an American-instigated separatist insurrection within China that bothers them. They know The United States is not above using any apparent innocent enterprise to interfere in another country, for example the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination program in Pakistan. Yao’s reaction shows that it is not only the Chinese government that objects to the NBA stance. All of China bristles at the thought of the long humiliation and exploitation at the hands of the West. Right now the NBA is in danger of becoming the face of Western interference in China, if it is not already.

Meanwhile Trump and other American politicians criticize the NBA for chasing profit over principle. Did you get that? Trump criticized Silver for chasing profit over principle. Trump! We’ve got a bunch of basketball players and executives clumsily trying to navigate the PC shoals of what they are allowed to say in defense of free speech and then Donald Trump complaining about someone chasing profit over principle. No one even blinks. Are we all nuts, or is it just me?

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: