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China Is to the NBA as North Korea Is to Sony Pictures

(Simon Dawson/Reuters)

One more point I’ve been meaning to add to the discussion of China strong-arming the NBA to prevent further discussion of the protests in Hong King: the parallel to when North Korea tried to strong-arm Sony Pictures into canceling its film, The Interview.

Most people probably remember that back in 2014, the North Korean government was outraged about an otherwise silly comedy that portrayed Kim Jong-un as a bumbling, emotionally unstable buffoon.

North Korean hackers grabbed a slew of embarrassing documents and emails from the Sony Pictures movie studio. What most people may forget is that subsequent terrorist threats — that theaters showing the film would be attacked — persuaded many cinema operators to refuse to show the film, and for a while, Sony canceled the film’s theatrical release.

The good news is that eventually, Sony gave the film a limited release and made it an online digital rental. But there was this weird sense of paralysis back in December 2014. A hostile foreign regime had, at least for a while, dictated that an American movie studio couldn’t release a film, and they appeared to be getting away with it. Everyone in Hollywood and Washington seemed to just stand around and say, “wow, that’s awful.”

Eventually, the U.S. government started treating it for what it was: a hostile state attacking American citizens for exercising their freedom of speech. The FBI launched a full investigation, announced criminal charges; the Obama administration denounced the attack and announced new sanctions; and about a month later, the Internet went down for about ten hours in North Korea. The U.S. government never claimed responsibility, so I suppose technically it could be just a weird coincidence that North Korea lost all Internet hours after President Obama declared that the United States would launch a “proportional response” to “cyber-vandalism.”

It took a little while, but eventually there was a unified American pushback that declared, “no foreign regime gets to tell Americans what they can and can’t say.”

The current moment with China requires the same response. But the early returns from the NBA — and ESPN! — are not encouraging, to say nothing of the administration’s relative silence on the matter (or the Hong Kong protests) in general. North Korea is comparably weak and isolated and doesn’t have a lot of friends in the United States. China is comparably strong, and a lot of Americans feel like their financial fortunes are tied to keeping the government in Beijing happy.

We are about to see who really decides what Americans can or can’t say.

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