How China exerts its power over the NBA — and its own citizens

It was once thought that the power to incite international incidents through the push of a tweet was a power reserved for America’s president, but on Oct. 4, with just seven words in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey drew the ire of the Chinese government and — while NBA players and employees sit in Shanghai awaiting preseason games that may not take place — cast the NBA as the world’s reluctant guardians of the values of democracy.

Since then, the NBA and its fans have received an object lesson in how authoritarian regimes accumulate power and apply pressure: by fostering in its institutions a reflexive desire to please, get out of the way and allow someone else to be made an example of. In the end, everyone cowers — including a series of American corporations that have made the Chinese Communist Party unhappy with increasingly vague interpretations of challenges to its sovereignty. Mercedes-Benz, for one, was reprimanded for quoting the Dalai Lama in an ad. Every capitulation allows China’s government to flex even harder in its next battle, like a snowball collecting speed and mass as it rolls downhill.

“The NBA should not cave in so easily to China,” said Dr. Josephine Chiu-Duke, an associate professor of Chinese intellectual history at the University of British Columbia. “This kind of a reaction from Chinese fans and their government should not be encouraged by people in our society. Otherwise, they will indirectly play a role in fostering this — in my view — extreme form of nationalism, and that’s no help to any member in the international community and is no help to enhance the relationship between China and the West.” All the while, Morey’s job, billions of dollars in revenue, and the NBA’s future in the world’s most populous country hang in the balance.

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It started with a drove of companies based in China, where the Rockets — thanks to Yao Ming’s nine seasons in Houston — are the NBA’s most popular team, dropping their sponsorships. Maybe some were nudged. Likely, they didn’t have to be. “Every entity in China, including now, even foreign entities but particularly Chinese companies, all have Communist Party committees,” explained Dr. Stanley Rosen, a political science professor specializing in Chinese politics and society at the University of Southern California and the author of the upcoming book, “Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics: China's Campaign for Hearts and Minds.”

Tencent Holdings, despite paying the NBA $1.5 billion for the rights to stream live games, which 490 million viewers tuned into last year, announced it would not broadcast Rockets games. Chiu-Duke spies an opportunity here. “If China discontinued every business deal with the NBA, their fans would do something eventually to maybe pressure their government not to do these kinds of things.”

And Tencent presumably has to make its $1.5 billion back. The problem is, they are Tencent’s purse strings, not the government’s. As unlikely as it may be for a company as successful as Tencent, the threat of extinction, as it does for any company in China that refuses to do the government’s bidding, always hovers over them. “They have to go along no matter how much money they might lose,” Rosen said. “The NBA is very popular in China, so the fans are going to suffer, but there’s nothing they can do about it. For Tencent, being aligned with the government position with the Chinese Communist Party position is an existential question: without that, they don’t exist. They can be terminated tomorrow. They can have their top leaders arrested for corruption tomorrow. That’s much more important than any amount of money they can lose in the short term.”

A Chinese flag is seen at the NBA's flagship retail store in Beijing. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
A Chinese flag is seen at the NBA's flagship retail store in Beijing. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

That also adds important context to the open letter Joseph Tsai — Brooklyn Nets co-owner, Chinese national and (a fact he conveniently left out of his statement) co-founder of Alibaba, China’s corollary for Amazon — penned, where he casts China’s 1.4 billion citizens as a united monolith that was deeply offended by Morey’s tweets.

“China will always say, ‘You have offended the feelings of 1.4 billion people,’” Rosen said. “Nobody in China’s going to say, ‘Well, it didn’t offend me,’ because immediately social media may out you and destroy you, bring you to the attention of the authorities.” That’s also why a company like Tencent can impose a 490-million person boycott without knowing how its users feel about the issue.

When the Lakers arrived, the raucous mob that bled into the side streets in years past was reduced to a crowd. Did people stay home out of fear or because they are indeed offended? In a country where facial recognition technology lines the streets, and dissenters disappear with regularity, where Wiebo stands in for Twitter, where internet censors are in a constant war with firewalls and loopholes, it’s impossible to know the truth. That’s intentional. The Chinese government understands that information is power, and it obfuscates information that weakens its own case. Public opinion polls on controversial issues are rarely conducted.

As Voltaire put it, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you aren’t allowed to criticize.” It’s a lesson the Chinese have known for generations. The NBA and its many corporate spokesmen have adapted and capitulated quickly.

Suddenly, everyone — from Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who has been outspoken about domestic issues, to players association president and All-Star Chris Paul — has more to read and learn before commenting. Stephen Curry feels he doesn’t know enough about the history of China to have a comment. For Kerr, whose father, an academic, was assassinated by terrorists in civil war-torn Beirut, the consequences of speaking up while members of the Lakers, Nets and a horde of NBA employees are in Shanghai may feel closer to home.

James Harden, a former MVP and the Rockets’ best player whose signature shoe sells in droves in China, apologized to fans and the country. On Wednesday, the league canceled the Lakers’ and Nets’ media availability due to “the fluidity of the situation.”

Even Silver’s second show of support to Morey, during a press conference in Japan on Tuesday, made sure to give credence to both sides. While one side is in the midst of fighting for its civil liberties, often at the risk of great violence and death, against an encroaching authoritarian regime that has committed human rights atrocities and engaged in propaganda campaigns in order to nullify it, the other side is … upset that people are upset about it. According to Deadspin, ESPN’s news director released a memo telling employees to avoid political discussions about Hong Kong and China.

Maybe members of the league will make stronger statements once everyone is back across the Pacific. And maybe it’s not on NBA players and coaches to do what no American corporation has done before and leap to the defense of a general manager they owe nothing to in service of an issue they may very well know little about. Or maybe it is, and that’s the cost of global citizenship, which has been exceedingly kind to the pockets of the NBA and its stars.

But the consistency of that response is what should give us pause. Its uniformity provides a peek into how soft power in authoritarian regimes works to reinforce hard power: the natural byproduct of fear, a seemingly uncalculated split-second of hesitation, the internal dialogue that suggests you should keep reading before commenting, the insistence that more details are required, or even better, that everyone here is just focused on the game, as Sixers coach Brett Brown put it.

All that, and China Central Television still repudiated Silver’s support for Morey’s right to freedom of expression, and announced it wouldn’t broadcast the Lakers-Nets preseason game. Silver, who has landed in Shanghai by now, hopes a face-to-face reconciliation will smooth things over, but contrition may not be enough against a force that feels no need to compromise.

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