By Jack Golub
Up until last week, Tilman Fertitta had made a mildly bad impression as owner of the Rockets. He gets the “mildly” modifier because plenty of other owners have done the same. He loves to talk to the media, whether it be to publicly doubt Daryl Morey, perhaps the most innovative and successful general manager (GM) in the league, or complain about his players. Despite recently buying the team for a then-record $2.2 billion (only eclipsed by new Nets owner Joe Tsai’s $2.35 billion; we’ll get to him later), Fertitta has tried to duck under the luxury tax. After Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, Fertitta raised his malfeasance to the next level. Almost immediately after reading Morey’s tweet, Fertitta took to the twitterscape to condemn his GM and explain that the Rockets are “apolitical.” His tweet — the instant refutation of his GM’s words, the hypocritical insistence on an impossibility — kicked the snowball down the mountain. If all goes well, the ensuing avalanche has only just begun.
As an international cultural force, the Houston Rockets organization doesn’t get to choose to be apolitical. The absence of political stance, like, say, advocating for democracy in a repressive, authoritarian led territory, is itself a political stance. If the Rockets as an organization truly were apolitical, then they would have had no comment on something their employee said. If they were truly apolitical, their owner would not regularly go on CNBC and wax lyrical about the joys of capitalism and the need to enable big business billionaires to make more money so that they might be able to higher a few more minimum wage workers. Fertitta was wrong to apologize for Morey. If he threatened to fire Morey unless Morey deleted his tweet and semi-apologized, which is my guess as to what happened, he was wrong there, too. However, his ill-advised attempt at preserving his Rockets’ Chinese market no matter the ramifications might end up being a good thing.
Following up on the Fertitta tweet and the widespread condemnation of Chinese “companies” like Tencent and the CBA, the NBA stumbled into the arena. In a bumbling, hardly legible statement befitting the Notes app screenshot via Shams tweet delivery it rode into the internet, the NBA’s statement stopped just short of condemning Morey while trying hard to apologize to China. In their Mandarin version statement, they fully condoned Morey. Who knew someone on Twitter might be able to speak both languages.
Their statement wasn’t enough for China to reverse its ban on all things Rockets, but it was enough to incur the ire of basically all of America. The NBA, in its cultural unifying glory, managed to bring Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz to the same side of the debate. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver naturally followed up with a heartier affirmation of freedom of speech. China responded in kind, blasting Silver for his misunderstanding of freedom of speech and cutting off TV access to the NBA, including the games that were being played by NBA teams in China. As an aside, China’s response was lunacy. They said that freedom of speech does not include statements that challenge national sovereignty. First of all, who are you, China, to decide what freedom of speech means in the U.S.? Second of all, if China itself stopped challenging the national sovereignty of its various territories, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Alas, Silver stopped short of exposing the hypocrisy.
Why did the NBA have to walk such a tight line? China is a larger market than the U.S.; more people in China watched Game 6 of the recent NBA Finals than people in America. Like many other big international corporations, the NBA has capitulated to China’s authoritarian control. It accepts unfair rules. Because China so heavily censors its citizens’ access to internet and so severely threatens any public opinion unaligned with the government, people in China don’t get the opportunity to form their own opinions. The NBA, then, makes itself beholden to government officials. Nets owner (making him an NBA governor) and Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai nicely conveyed China’s stance. Tsai probably doesn’t have a choice in what to say, given the immense pressure he must be under from his government. It’s telling in itself that Tsai, the Taiwan-raised, American-educated, capitalist superhero, has no choice but to stick to the script the government gives him.
At first glance, Tsai’s Facebook letter reads like a well-informed explanation from the perspective of someone personally involved in Chinese politics. If you read with the slightest critical lens, though, it’s a different story. Tsai laments foreign intervention in China, including the British-instigated Opium Wars. Britain sought to grow its economic power by selling opium to the Chinese. Here, Tsai is reminding us that China is intimately familiar with using political strategy to enable economic greed. It seems China has learned its lesson and managed to reorient the political power structure to serve its own needs. Instead of letting other countries wage war in order to profit, China now sets the political table to its choosing. If other countries want to profit, they must play by China’s rules. China still represents a giant untapped (or not yet fully tapped) market, but now Xi Jinping’s authoritarian regime uses its people to solidify its own stranglehold on power.
Eventually, Tsai concludes with the party line: The Hong Kong protestors are separatists. The Chinese people deserve the support, or at the very least the immunity from, democracy-hungry Westerners because they don’t want to lose Hong Kong again. I’m sure the 18th Century British empire would empathize; they probably hated losing their favorite colony, too.
On another note, it really irks me when Chinese officials talk about how so many average joe Chinese people are outraged by what’s happening. Maybe if they didn’t censor their internet and gave their citizens any sort of freedom of speech then we, the entire world, might actually know what the Chinese people think. But they do, so we don’t.
Finally, Tsai’s use of the word separatism explains that his stance is coming straight from the propaganda mothership that informs all Chinese news outlets. If Hong Kongers are separatists, mainland China is an oppressive colonial ruler. If there truly is one “People’s Republic,” then legitimate elections for representatives with real power shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Here is why sports matter and why this moment is about to reverberate far beyond what any of us can imagine. China’s political situation is mostly on lock. News is so censored that most Chinese don’t know what’s going on. The few that do refuse to speak out — a refusal that makes a lot of sense when weighed against the imprisonment and potential death that certainly awaits anyone who dares to criticize the government. It is all but impossible to imagine a scenario where a political push for democracy springs up and spreads throughout China.
What’s more likely is that China encounters an economic slowdown, making its people susceptible to losing trust in their government. Then, they would be susceptible to a social disruption instigating anger among the people. China is hurting from the trade war just like we in the U.S. are. While the government has undoubtedly used the trade war to further solidify resentment towards the U.S., at some point people will ask their government for change. What happens if the government can’t come through?
Silver acted like he needs China. He sort of does. But more than he needs China, China needs him. The NBA is more popular there than it is here. It’s estimated that nearly 500 million Chinese people watched an NBA game last year. China has bought in. And while China has gained success in the global economy through efficient production, it’s hard to make a close substitute for pop culture. Instead of kowtowing to China, Silver should flex his muscles. It’s not just about defending an employee’s right to freedom of speech; the NBA does business with an authoritarian regime, and it just might have the clout to induce change.
The Chinese government overplayed their hand. So far, international businesses have underplayed theirs. If the various international entertainment companies that have run afoul of Big Brother Xi can organize, their collective impact (or the loss of their presence) could be enough to make some people angry. The NBA should turn their “building bridges” talk away from China and towards the other members of the international entertainment industry that have so far acquiesced.
Organized together, these companies could deliver the catalyzing blow to the Chinese social order that might precipitate political change. They must organize together. If the NBA does not take leadership and not only stand up for itself, acknowledging its own power, but also bring in others, then the Morey snowball will slow to a stop. If the NBA truly is a values-based organization, they will not let some of their customers dictate what those values are. They will, as TNT reminds us in every Game 7, win or go home.
Daryl Morey isn’t a Chinese revolutionary. Not yet. But, I hope one day we can look back and see that his tweet triggered a global evolution from prioritizing economic interest to recognizing and fighting injustice. Free Hong Kong. Free China. Revolutions of our time.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.