This morning, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a new statement about Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support for protesters in Hong Kong, and it is a somewhat better one, declaring, “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”
In that statement, Silver sounds like a man who wants to do the right thing but realizes that doing so will cost his organization a fortune and perhaps even endanger people. Silver continued to try to talk a tightrope Tuesday at a news conference in Tokyo before a preseason game between the Rockets and NBA champion Toronto Raptors.
“Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees,” Silver said. “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”
“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” Silver said. “I regret — again, having communicated directly with many friends in China — that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans. At the end of the day, we come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes . . . that we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony, that’s something I regret.”
The cops are shooting people from point-blank range in Hong Kong. Disruption and disharmony are already here. The question is what the NBA’s players, coaches, managers, owners, and officials are willing to do in response to this disruption and disharmony. (A more serious comment from the President of the United States wouldn’t hurt, either.)
Back in May, I went back to the arguments American policymakers had with themselves in the 1990s as they contemplated extending “most-favored-nation” status to China, and then “permanent normal trade relations.” Something weird happened when chief executives of American companies discussed China back then. They kept describing a market of a billion new customers, as if the average Chinese citizen was awash in disposable income. They pictured a China full of people eating American soybeans, drinking Coke, wearing blue jeans made with American cotton, celebrating with American bourbon and riding on Boeing airplanes.
America’s policymakers, by and large, agreed. Here’s Bill Clinton describing America’s future relationship with China in 2000, after the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed Permanent Normal Trade Relations:
With more than a billion people, China is the largest new market in the world. Our administration has negotiated an agreement that will open China’s markets to American products made on American soil, everything from corn to chemicals to computers.
Bringing China into the WTO and normalizing trade will strengthen those who fight for the environment, for labor standards, for human rights, for the rule of law . . . At this stage in China’s development, we will have a more positive influence with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist.
Clinton hailed the deal as a step to “a China that is more open to our products and more respectful of the rule of law at home and abroad.” And from that year on, America’s trade relationship with China was “normal.”
Except . . . China wasn’t a “normal” country, and it never was one. Only a few decades earlier, the Chinese regime had perpetrated some of the greatest horrors of the century upon its people — the Great Chinese Famine — which killed tens of millions! — the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen Square massacre had just been a few years earlier. It still had political prisoners and a police state, it was slowly but steadily building up its military, it still harvested organs from prisoners in its jails. And yet most of America’s political and business leaders looked across the Pacific, averted their eyes from the draconian human rights abuses, focused relentlessly on that growing economy and potential billion customers and declared, “we can do business with these people.” And they told the rest of us to trust them. Oh, and Bill Clinton assured us that money donated by Chinese citizens in his reelection campaign had never influenced his thinking about China. Even though in 1992, he had campaigned as a tough critic of China and called George H. W. Bush as too soft on the regime.
Nothing could seem to dissuade America’s business leaders when it came to their vision of an endlessly mutually profitable relationship with the regime. We kept being told how absolutely ruthless and relentless the Chinese efforts at corporate espionage were, and how brazenly and defiantly they stole patents, blueprints, and intellectual property. I don’t know about you, but when somebody steals from me, I don’t want to keep doing business with them. Yet America’s business leaders never seemed to experience anything that made them conclude the regime is so bad that it’s not worth doing business with them. There was this consistently weird disconnect in the comments from American business leaders, as they kept saying their Chinese competitors were overtly or secretly state-subsided, or would complain about corruption . . . but no one wanted to stop putting more resources there.
But as companies became more economically entangled with China, they stopped having any interest in uttering a critical word about China. You stopped hearing about Tibet, or the Falun Gong. As the Chinese government started assembling a surveillance network that would make George Orwell gasp, American companies were happy to supply the tech. The employees and leaders of Google didn’t renew a deal with the U.S. Pentagon, contending the Pentagon’s use of their artificial intelligence tech violated their moral principles. But the company didn’t see working with the Chinese military as similarly problematic. (Back in the early days of the war on terror, some of us would scoff about self-proclaimed peace activists that they weren’t anti-war, they were just pro-the-other-side.)
Americans don’t like thinking about trade policy. It’s a topic so inherently boring that it can bog down the excitement of a Star Wars prequel. Americans would much rather think about fun topics, like basketball and movies.
But the business world’s rosy view of China started manifesting itself in strange new ways. The remake of Red Dawn at first imagined China invading was suddenly and hastily rewritten to depict tiny North Korea invading and attempting to conquer the United States. An Iron Man sequel featured this weird, tacked-on subplot about a Chinese surgeon saving his life, and the Chinese version of the film was even more disjointed and heavy-handed. A Transformers sequel replaced Michael Bay’s usual slow-motion tributes to American military hardware with weirdly discordant shots of Chinese officials pledging to protect Hong Kong from rampaging Decepticons. The one Chinese film star that most American audiences might recognize — Fin Bangbang, who played the voiceless mutant Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past, just disappeared for a few months; the Chinese government later announced she had been put under house arrest for alleged tax evasion. No one in Hollywood mentioned her in their awards speeches or organized any protests.
Hollywood stars never hesitated to denounce any Republican president in the harshest of terms, but the only big star still publicly critical of the Chinese government is Richard Gere. Financial incentives for big institutions like movie and television studios created incentives for self-censorship that are probably even more effective than a police state. Some people will defy a police state out of inherent rebelliousness or irritation with authority. But everybody hates to walk away from a potential fortune — and for every major player in Hollywood, China represents a potential fortune and investors in future films.
A proposed law that would allow Hong Kong cops to send arrested suspects to mainland China turned into a flashpoint, an increasingly violent conflict between the people of Hong Kong and the authoritarian rulers of China, who cannot accept any form of defiance of their power. One general manager of one National Basketball Association team put out one tweet, and since then, the NBA has worked overtime to demonstrate our new cultural power structure.
Criticism of the Chinese government is forbidden — I don’t mean in China, I mean de facto in the United States for anyone who is part of any institution that has any investment in China. The sports league that prides itself on freedom of expression and social relevance — one so politically correct that it banned the word “owner” because the term allegedly evokes slavery — has no one willing to say Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is right and that people around the world should, as he tweeted, “fight for Freedom” and “stand with Hong Kong.” As of this writing, not a single player, not a single coach, not a single owner has spoken out in support of Morey. You couldn’t get all those guys to agree on any topic in domestic American politics. But for the first forty-eight hours of this controversy, the opinion of everyone associated with the NBA was uniform. Our relationship with China has not made them more like us. It has made us more like them.
Think about it: we have no shortage of professional athletes who are willing to publicly denounce American cops who they deem abusive and brutal. But everybody’s looking at their shoes as the cops in Hong Kong beat the hell out of anybody in a mask and shoot people at point-blank range.
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has plenty to say when the topic is mass shootings, Donald Trump, or Colin Kaepernick. But suddenly he finds the topic of Hong Kong just too complicated and “bizarre” for him to comment. “Actually I don’t,” Kerr said when asked if he has thoughts on the controversy. “It’s a really bizarre international story. A lot of us don’t know what to make of it. It’s something I’m reading about like everybody is, but I’m not gonna comment further.”
It’s an authoritarian regime cracking down on protests and public expressions of dissent. Is that really . . . “bizarre”?
ADDENDA: In case you missed it yesterday, our foreign policy is muddled, because the public’s views are muddled, because our leaders are afraid to tell voters things they don’t want to hear; President Trump blindsides the Pentagon, which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, and a cheap shot at Bernie Sanders on The Daily Show reveals the inherent danger of treating comedy shows as journalism.