There was a time when American companies operating in China could make a strong argument that they were doing good even as they did well. They could take advantage of cheaper Chinese labor, attempt to sell products in the immense (and growing) Chinese market, and also be a part of the process of opening up a Communist dictatorship to the invariably-liberalizing power of the free market.
But now — as the National Basketball Association faces one of the worst public-relations crises in league history — the true story is clear. You may be able to do well in the Chinese market, but you will not be able to do good. In fact, the reverse is likely to be the case. American access to Chinese markets is conditioned on adopting Chinese approaches to free expression. The Chinese market doesn’t liberalize: It oppresses.
If you rewind the tape a mere eight days, the NBA enjoyed a reputation as a league that was both progressive and free. Yes, the league had a definite political bent — it was perhaps the most left-wing of all the American sports leagues — but it also had a free-wheeling culture that endorsed employee expression. Conservatives could love the liberty even if they disliked the leftism.
But last Friday Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey briefly tweeted — then deleted — a statement supporting the Hong Kong protests. The response was extraordinary. The owner of the Rockets quickly distanced himself from Morey, the NBA issued a mealy-mouthed statement that tried to placate China while not exactly condemning Morey, NBA star James Harden apologized to the Chinese, and a number of normally outspoken progressives in the league (such as Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr) mumbled some version of “it’s complicated” when asked about Chinese atrocities.
While the league tried to repair the damage by issuing a second statement that was more strongly supportive of free speech, its teams kept delivering the opposite message. Fans were tossed from the arena in Philadelphia and had signs confiscated in Washington for voicing support for Hong Kong or China’s embattled Muslim minority, and a Houston Rockets team official shut down a question from a CNN reporter to Harden and star guard Russell Westbrook about political engagement (the NBA later apologized). In an act of obvious frustration, the NBA banned news conferences entirely for the remainder of its most recent tour through China.
While the NBA is in the spotlight, it’s hardly the only American company that is bowing to Chinese censorship. Activision Blizzard — the maker of popular video games such as Hearthstone and World of Warcraft — suspended one of its professional Hearthstone players for a year and made him forfeit prize money for the sin of publicly supporting the Hong Kong protesters. Deadspin obtained a copy of an ESPN memo admonishing its on-air talent to avoid analyzing Chinese policies. Apple banned an app that Hong Kong protesters were using to track Hong Kong police.
What do each of these controversies have in common? China is using its commercial power to warp the policies of American companies in order to impose Chinese censorship.
If there is a silver lining to this dark cloud, it’s that the NBA (and ESPN and Apple and Blizzard) have united Americans across the political spectrum. Progressives and conservatives alike are repulsed by the rank opportunism and venal censorship of allegedly “woke” American corporations. Each new progressive corporate foray into American politics should be met with an immediate follow-up: “Thank you for your thoughts on pro-life laws in Georgia. Do you care to comment on the concentration camps near your basketball camp in the People’s Republic of China? Do you care to comment on your decision to silence Americans who dissent from Chinese repression in Hong Kong? Do you have any thoughts on aiding Hong Kong police by deleting an app that helps protesters avoid physical beatings?”
While exposing corporate hypocrisy is useful, the much deeper issue remains. American companies seeking access to the Chinese market risk being conscripted into the Chinese system of repression.
But for now, the NBA is exposed. When push comes to shove, it is not progressive. It does not love liberty. It’s a crass commercial enterprise masquerading as a value-laden league. Its “bravest” voices — those who are ready, willing, and eager to uncork angry screeds against domestic political foes — have trouble making the mildest of statements against truly horrific human-rights violations. How “complicated” are concentration camps, exactly? Keep this up, and the NBA may well find that its craven appeasement of 10 percent of its revenue market will cost it dearly with the 90 percent who truly pay its multi-billion dollar bills.