Businesses operating in a globalized world must sometimes make compromises to accommodate autocratic regimes as they expand abroad, but it is essential that they don’t abandon their core values in the process. This has been brought into stark relief over the past few days, as the Chinese state has sought to punish the National Basketball Association and the television show South Park for separate criticisms of its totalitarian practices, and the former shamefully caved while the latter responded with defiance.
After Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a statement supportive of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong late last week, China quickly moved to punish the team: The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its cooperation with the Rockets and announced that the streaming service Tencent would not be airing Rockets games for this upcoming season. The Rockets’ owner, Tillman Fertita, no doubt feeling Chinese pressure, publicly rebuked Morey and clarified that the GM’s comments did not represent the view of the team or the NBA. The franchise’s star player, James Harden, publicly apologized to China, and Morey deleted the tweet and issued an apologetic statement of his own. The NBA sent out an incoherent press release affirming its support for individuals’ educating themselves, the Chinese version of which even labeled Morey’s tweet inappropriate. The message was clear: The league would prioritize its relationship with China over any commitment to democratic values.
The league was roundly criticized for its cowardice. Politicians on both sides of the aisle spoke out against its willingness to immediately fold in the face of China’s anti-Morey campaign, and with good reason. After all, this is the same NBA that consistently touts its leadership on social-justice issues and was even quick to boycott a whole state a few years ago because of a law it didn’t like, and here it was pathetically groveling before a brutal totalitarian regime in a doomed attempt to preserve its standing in the massive Chinese market.
Faced with similar pressure, Comedy Central and the writers of South Park performed much more admirably. Last week, the show aired an episode, “Band in China,” which mocked the Chinese government for its constant attempts to censor criticism and the American entertainment industry for its willingness to assist in those censorship efforts as long as the profits continue to roll in. China, almost as if to prove the show’s point, responded to the episode by “deleting virtually every clip, episode and online discussion of the show from Chinese streaming services, social media and even fan pages.” In turn, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker reacted with a fake apology mocking the NBA for “loving money more than freedom and democracy” and the Chinese government for its attempted censorship.
In short, while the NBA was busy selling out its values and dignity, Parker and Stone showed that it is possible to prioritize essential democratic values and free expression over financial gain. It’s obviously difficult for a large company or organization to risk its access to the Chinese market by standing up for democratic values, but no company should be willing to directly assist a totalitarian regime in attempting to silence critics. The NBA chose to react without scruples, as so many companies do, and now faces a huge backlash and a potential boycott movement. The league would’ve done better to emulate South Park’s response — or at least to have avoided verifying the show’s parody of companies that will sacrifice the free-speech rights of its employees simply to appease an evil regime.