‘Believe me, the China situation bothers me. . . . But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money,” then–NBA commissioner David Stern said in a 2006 interview. He may not have known then where his allegiance to the bottom line would lead the league and the game he helped to grow.
To hear him tell it then, Stern was intent on turning the NBA into an exporter of American values. Under his leadership, the league began its “Basketball Without Borders” program, which initially sent NBA players to run basketball camps in geopolitically tense parts of the world. “NBACares” television spots dominated game breaks. “We’re going to keep right on showing them,” Stern told Sports Illustrated when asked about public annoyance with the frequency of the ads. “Because social responsibility is extremely important to us.”
But Stern was still a businessman. Basketball’s universal appeal made it an easy international venture, and Stern’s tenure as commissioner marked a global explosion of the NBA’s brand. In 2013, toward the tail end of his illustrious career, the league announced a unification of its international preseason tours under one banner: the “NBA Global Games.” “Providing fans with an authentic NBA experience is an important part of our efforts to grow the game globally,” Stern said in the press release.
Of all the possible new markets, China has always been the crown jewel: a basketball-crazed country deprived of a quality domestic product. China’s basketball roots go deep — Mao Zedong was a big supporter, and the People’s Liberation Army has long seen the game as a popular pastime. Stern saw the potential and opened the relationship in 1987 by offering NBA broadcasts to China Central Television for free.
But, as recent news shows, access to the teeming Chinese market comes with stipulations that threaten the league’s purported commitment to American values. The Chinese backlash against a single tweet sent by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, which offered support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, sent shock waves through the league. In the face of boycott threats from multiple Chinese organizations, the NBA kowtowed and released an initial statement that called Morey’s actions “inappropriate” in its Chinese translation. After American politicians and media figures expressed outrage over the league’s response, commissioner Adam Silver backtracked a day later and made a stand for Morey’s right to free speech. The Chinese corporate response was swift. By Wednesday, of the 13 Chinese official NBA partners, 11 have ended or suspended ties with the league.
It’s a remarkably condensed timeline for a story that’s decades in the making and for a league that has prided itself on progressive values. When Commissioner Silver was asked last year about the NBA’s being “the wokest professional sports league,” he replied, “I understand the sentiment and we’re proud of that.” But considering what China means to the NBA, the fallout is entirely predictable.
After Yao Ming emerged on the scene as the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, 200 million Chinese tuned in to Ming’s first game with the Houston Rockets. The league’s popularity in China exploded. In 2004, when Ming and the Houston Rockets beat the Sacramento Kings in an exhibition game, the NBA became the first American professional sports league to stage a contest in China.
Conscious of Ming’s star power in China, and of how quickly it had translated into fervent support for basketball in general, Stern began to plan for an official league presence in China. At one time, the commissioner hoped for a five- to six-team Chinese division within the league; in the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he told reporters, “A decade from now, the champion of the NBA of China could be playing the champion of the NBA.”
Beijing presented a marquee opportunity for development. With investment from Walt Disney Co. and Chinese firms, the league launched a $253 million venture in January 2008 called “NBA China.” The U.S.–China men’s basketball game during the Olympics featured both Bush presidents on the sideline, and over 100 million views worldwide. “The No. 1 priority is to grow the game in China,” former NBA China CEO Tim Chen said.
Over a decade into the project, the results are in. In 2006, China had 30 million fans tuning in to the NBA. During the 2018 NBA season, roughly 490 million Chinese fans streamed NBA games on Tencent, a figure that represents a tripling in the past four years, and that doesn’t even include television numbers. Statistics for the 2017–18 season put that number at 640 million viewers. Tencent recently extended an initial five-year, $700-million deal with the league for an additional five years and $1.5 billion. NBA China is now worth more than $4 billion.
From a business perspective, it’s no surprise that the NBA has overlooked China’s domestic tyranny for the pursuit of financial gain. Isaac Stone Fish, a contributing columnist at the Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Asia Society, has written in the past on the gross human-rights violations the NBA has ignored in its dealings with China.
In Xinjiang province, where the NBA has one of its three Chinese “NBA Academies,” the Chinese Communist Party brutally subjugates the region’s Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority, the Uighurs, who are not allowed to freely worship and are under phone-tracking and face-scanning surveillance. Roughly a million are held in camps that the government calls “free hospital treatment for the masses with sick thinking,” from which accounts of attempted political indoctrination and torture have emerged. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced visa restrictions on Chinese officials believed to participate in the repression of the Uighurs. The NBA has been eerily quiet on the whole affair.
“Oftentimes American corporations will get their views normalized to the prevailing norms in China, and unfortunately the norms in China are supporting the party’s work in Xinjiang,” Stone Fish told National Review. “I think that for a long time the U.S. thought American values would reign supreme in China. . . . Now the battle lines have changed. It’s a fine line.”
After all, access to the Chinese market, and the resulting revenue, represents not just a narrow corporate interest for the NBA, but also the culmination of three decades of U.S. foreign policy toward China, according to Matt Stoller of Open Markets Institute. Under a policy of “engagement,” lawmakers and policy experts once believed that increased trade relations would bring about liberalization in China, as Western goods would gradually bring about Western values.
At the time, the NBA saw itself as part of the project. “I was struck by how the kids looked the same as American kids,” Stern said of Chinese fans in 2008. “It’s the global teenager. Their hair was streaked blond, and their shorts were around their ankles. They wore headphones.” But gradually, Stern’s vision vanished from the picture.
If we are to draw a lesson from the Morey affair, it is this: The Chinese state has not absorbed American values through economic osmosis. In fact, the opposite has occurred: American companies, eager for Chinese market share, have abandoned the values that helped nurture their success and submitted to Beijing.
“The gist of it is that businesses and finances have trends where if you’re not doing what the herd is doing, you’re going to be in trouble,” Stoller told National Review. “And for a while it was the case in China” that “even if you didn’t think it was a good idea, you have to do it.”
Stoller thinks the problems began with Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s, which pushed U.S. firms to see relationships with China’s autocracy not only as potentially profitable but also as primers for democracy. U.S. firms started to push domestic production and capital to China, with the hope that Western norms would follow suit.
Cultural institutions such as the NBA played their part but fell short like the rest.
If the NBA is to be relieved of the obligation to choose between its bottom line and standing up for American values, the U.S. must rethink its longstanding policy of engagement free of preconditions.
“When a single guy with the Rockets tweets out support of Hong Kong — and Twitter is banned in China — and then every bureaucrat in China has the incentive to say ‘I hate the Rockets,’ ‘No I hate the Rockets more,’ then that’s not a good scenario to be in,” Stoller says. “The NBA has been put into a position where they are now representing U.S. policy. It is policy that is the problem, and it’s on the U.S. to change that.”