The NBA has long portrayed itself as standing up for human rights, whether dismissing the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner for racist statements or moving the All-Star Game from Charlotte after North Carolina took a stand against allowing transgender people to use the bathroom associated with their identity. NBA stars have taken up such varied causes as gun control, police abuse and Trump’s hateful rhetoric. The success of the league itself is a tribute to diversity and globalism. But the NBA now faces a test of its principles when access to the massive Chinese market is at issue.
As is now widely known, the Houston Rockets' general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted on Friday: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” His reference was to Hong Kong protesters who are trying to protect their territory’s freedoms and the rule of law from Beijing’s authoritarian encroachment.
Various Chinese voices went ballistic. The official English-language newspaper, China Daily, called Morey’s tweet “irresponsible and uninformed.” The Chinese Basketball Association, headed by the former Rockets legend Yao Ming, said it would suspend cooperation with the Rockets. Chinese state television, CCTV, as well as the Chinese company Tencent, a media partner of the NBA with a five-year streaming deal worth $1.5 billion, said they would not broadcast Rockets games.
The NBA initially responded with mixed messages. It affirmed the right of individuals to “shar[e] their views on matters important to them,” and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that, “as a values-based organization,” the NBA supports Morey “in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression."
At the same time, it sought to distance itself from Morey’s tweet, which it said, “does not represent the Rockets or the NBA.” And in a Chinese-language version of its statement posted on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, the NBA said it was “extremely disappointed” by what it called an “inappropriate” comment.
Morey, in turn, deleted the tweet and issued a contrite statement: “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”
Then things escalated. Unhappy with this partial bowing to its censors, CCTV and Tencent announced they would suspend current broadcast arrangements for the NBA’s pre-season games. With the NBA saying that 640 million Chinese watched its games during the 2017-18 season, the stakes are large.
On Tuesday morning, Silver doubled down and issued a stronger statement. He said that “values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA—and will continue to do so.” He then explained: “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say….We simply could not operate that way.”
Given the Chinese government’s human rights record, including its banning of all independent labor unions and its politicized judicial system, companies doing business there have to be diligent to avoid complicity in human rights violations. Those that have gotten it wrong have paid a big reputational price, whether Yahoo handing over the name of a dissident who was then given a 10-year prison term, or the U.S. genetics company Thermo Fisher selling DNA sequencers to police in China while those authorities forcibly collect biodata from Uyghur Muslims and others. The NBA, too, has faced criticism for running a basketball academy in China’s Xinjiang region, where Beijing has established a highly intrusive surveillance state and arbitrarily detained an estimated one million Uighur and other Turkic Muslims for forced indoctrination.
But Chinese authorities have become increasingly aggressive about using China’s economic might, and their ability to dictate the behavior of Chinese businesses, to impose Beijing’s views overseas. In return, companies keep bowing to that pressure.
Cathay Pacific airlines threatened to fire staff in Hong Kong if they supported or participated in the Hong Kong protests. Daimler apologized after its subsidiary, Mercedes Benz, quoted the Dalai Lama on social media. Marriott fired a social media manager for “liking” a tweet praising Marriott for calling Tibet a country and vowed “to ensure errors like this don’t happen again.”
PwC disowned a statement published in a Hong Kong newspaper supporting the pro-democracy protests said to have been placed by employees of the Big Four accounting firms. Vans, an American shoe company, removed a design submitted to its annual competition that depicts Hong Kong protests. And Hollywood is increasingly censoring its films for Beijing’s sensibilities, such as the removal of a Taiwan flag from Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in the sequel to “Top Gun.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is refining its tools of control, extending a new domestic social-control mechanism to companies doing business there. In 2018, Chinese aviation authorities sent letters to the major American airlines United, Delta and American, threatening to punish them by labelling them “dishonest” under China’s “social credit” system if they failed to toe the Chinese Communist Party line by calling Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau part of China.
This is not solely about censorship on the Chinese mainland. Rather, it is about China trying to dictate what people can say everywhere. It is about trying to force us to limit our own discourse, on pain of economic ostracization, to avoid anything that might trigger the deep insecurities of China’s president, Xi Jinping.
We all can play a role in helping to determine whether companies succumb to Beijing’s blackmail. If consumers seek out companies that respect freedom of expression, if shareholders demand a principled response, if employees insist on businesses that uphold their values, then the economic calculations would become more complex.
But ultimately companies have to decide what they stand for. The Chinese market will always seem enticing. Is there a limit to the principles that companies will sacrifice to maintain access? Do they have values above the bottom line?
After a halting beginning, the NBA seems to have come down on the side of free speech. Let’s hope it stays there. It undoubtedly will pay an economic price, but it won’t be alone in feeling the pain. Its millions of fans in China may now be deprived of the joy of watching the world’s finest basketball.
Sadly, under the current government in Beijing, they won’t have much say in the matter. A principled stand for free expression by companies hoping to do business in China may hasten the day when the unfettered voices of the Chinese people can be heard.