When President Barack Obama and his advisors set out to redirect American foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia, they invoked a metaphor from basketball, the game that the president famously played and loved. The United States would “pivot” to Asia where our greatest challenges and opportunities in this century will all unfold. Years later, in the midst of the U.S.-China trade war and the Trump administration’s new strategic competition with China, it may be basketball that awakens America to the real scale of our burgeoning China problem.
It may be basketball that awakens America to the real scale of our burgeoning China problem.
When Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted out his support for the Hong Kong protests on October 4, it ignited a firestorm for the NBA. With a multibillion-dollar market and an estimated 500 million basketball fans, China had arguably become the NBA’s most important project outside of the United States. However, the league’s focus on China’s sports fans and the rising Chinese consumer missed an even bigger and more important picture: the Chinese Communist Party and its plans for the 21st century.
China’s plans are far more ambitious than the subjugation of a professional sports league. China wants nothing less than to become the dominant global superpower, overtaking the United States, breaking our alliance system and ending America’s economic and military preeminence. The Communist Party doesn’t just want to impose its dictates on the speech and practices of American basketball players, but on America and our allies around the world. This may sound too extreme to contemplate for people without direct exposure to China and its system of government. However taking on the NBA has, perhaps for the first time in a long time, made the problem of China a household headline in America.
We have now caught the first tiny glimpse of what it would mean for China to, as its leaders desire, eventually rule the world. The Communist Party has pressured the NBA to apologize, and even, it emerges, to fire Daryl Morey for exercising his freedom of speech on American soil. (Twitter, notably, is banned in China.) China’s celebrities and corporations have boycotted, threatened and broken ties with the NBA, despite enjoying access to American culture and to the vast American market.
The NBA in general, and Adam Silver in particular, have been impressive in their stand against the People’s Republic of China. Regardless of this pressure from China’s government, here’s what Silver said last week about the request to fire Morey: “There’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
Rarely, if ever, has an American firm stood up to the Communist Party and its methods.
This kind of courage, when there are dollars at stake, has been a long time coming. Indeed, Adam Silver’s statement may be a turning point in the state of U.S.-China business relations. “We wanted to make an absolutely clear statement that the values of the NBA, these American values — we are an American business — travel with us wherever we go,” Silver noted. “And one of those values is free expression.”
Rarely, if ever, has an American firm stood up to the Communist Party and its methods. Here is the real state of play: America’s major corporations have increasingly been forced to fire employees and to apologize for maps of China which fail to endorse the military objectives of the Communist Party, including in the South China Sea and in other places of enormous geopolitical importance. Engagement with China now means the censorship of Hollywood movies and the censorship of American television screenwriting. China’s propaganda arms are now waging communications warfare against American citizens on American social media, something which our tech giants have been unable to prevent. All of this, it must be emphasized, is only a small taste of what China’s leaders ultimately have in mind.
This is the China of 2019. These actions are taking shape in a world in which America is still the primary superpower. But the Chinese Communist Party has in fact laid out a detailed program of strategy and action which would propel it to dominance by the symbolic year of 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. While specialists, experts and foreign policy professionals can and have warned about China’s growing militarism, surveillance state and its ultimate ambitions for years now, the methods of the Chinese Communist Party are finally reaching across the Pacific.
Inside the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party has built up a massive system of repression. In the province of Xinjiang, over one million people have reportedly been placed inside concentration camps as their culture and language are systematically destroyed. Inside Tibet, torture and “cultural genocide” have been instruments of Communist Party rule for decades.
The Communist Party is now using Silicon Valley-style technology to build a surveillance state that employs facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence and big data to track and control its citizens, all while reportedly engaging in practices such as mass organ harvesting of political prisoners. When it comes to the outside world, the Chinese military is being designed for conflict with the United States and our allies. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping regularly calls for his military to “prepare to fight and win wars.”
In the last great contest of our lifetimes — the Cold War — America succeeded in outsmarting, outcompeting and ultimately winning a multi-decade contest with an authoritarian superpower, the USSR. It is said that America realized the true stakes of that contest when the USSR launched Sputnik, a man-made satellite the size of a basketball, that traveled across the stars.
We may not yet have had our Chinese “Sputnik moment,” but we do have Adam Silver, the Houston Rockets and the National Basketball Association. It is time for America to understand what’s at stake with China, and time for us all to get in the game.
By Jonathan D. T. Ward
Dr. Jonathan D. T. Ward is the author of “China’s Vision of Victory,” and founder of Atlas Organization, a consultancy for American businesses on U.S.-China strategic competition. He received his Ph.D. in China-India relations from the University of Oxford.