It is important, in understanding conflicts with the People’s Republic of China, to have a fully nuanced grasp of the history and context involved. For instance, it is important to understand the history and context of the demand for history and context, as offered by Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey got himself and the league in trouble by tweeting a brief message of support for the protest movement in Hong Kong.
Tsai brought up the opium wars, the humiliation of the Qing dynasty, and the Rape of Nanjing, among other things, to explain why the “territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland” are “non-negotiable.” This is the standard script when the People’s Republic of China wants to weaponize nationalism—every provocation must be considered in the light of all historic provocations.
The script is nonsense. Morey’s tweet, taking the side of Hong Kong protesters against the police, had nothing at all to do with Japanese troops inflicting horror and slaughter on hundreds of thousands of people in Nanjing. The idea that it did was cynicism posing as sophistication—which is to say, the defining attitude in relations between 21st-century China and the institutions that hope to make money there.
But the institutions are the ones being naïve. The message of a spiel like Tsai’s is that foreign institutions can coexist with the Chinese government on mutual terms of respect, as long as those institutions honor the boundaries around China’s nonnegotiable sensitivities. The truth, though, is that those boundaries are constantly moving. Ever since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which were supposed to celebrate China’s full integration into the international order, the government has been aggressively tightening the limits, confident that the terms of engagement mean foreign entities will have to go along—whether it’s a matter of putting Communist Party officials onto university boards, or stifling news coverage of leadership’s self-enrichment, or censoring a movie, or removing apps from the Chinese market.
What are you going to do, after all, turn your back on 1.4 billion people? Or 1.399 billion, if you don’t count the 1 million Uighurs reportedly held in prison camps where their culture is trained out of them by force (in a territory where the NBA established a training camp)?
Yes. That is what to do. Especially for the NBA, whose relationship with China is chiefly monetary. NBA China is reportedly worth $4 billion. That’s a lot of money to walk away from over one tweet. And that’s exactly why the NBA should walk away now.
China has already played its hand. If Hong Kong is nonnegotiable, there’s nothing to discuss. The subject will become more sensitive, not less, if the Hong Kong police move from tear gas and rubber bullets to the routine use of live ammunition, or if the People’s Liberation Army moves in. Would the NBA muzzle its employees then? Would the players and staff of a globally prominent American company censor their own feelings to protect the Chinese market? Why not take the stand before it gets to that?
Today, China is trying to punish the NBA and the Rockets further, despite their show of groveling. Rockets games will be pulled from broadcast television and online streaming; an exhibition game featuring the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets’ minor league affiliate, has been canceled.
Why is China the only entity that can respond to provocation? What about the sovereignty and integrity of the National Basketball Association? The Lakers and the Nets are on their way to China right now for a pair of exhibition games. If the regime refuses the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, why should it get the Lakers? If China won’t broadcast Rockets games, why should it get to see LeBron James in person?
China may have 1.4 billion people and $4 billion worth of a basketball market, but only the NBA has NBA basketball. That is nonnegotiable in its own way, if the league is willing to stand up for itself.
The NBA is afraid of offending China — and so are online platforms
Late last week, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” By this morning, however, he’d deleted the tweet and posted an apology — as Chinese companies pulled sponsorship over the message and Morey’s employers reportedly considered firing him.
This weekend’s controversy wasn’t unique — journalist Max Read listed companies that had apologized over slights like omitting Taiwan from a map of China on a t-shirt. But it was a microcosm of how companies struggle to deal with China’s influence. And while this case involved one man posting a personal opinion online, it’s particularly pertinent for companies that let millions of people post opinions and find facts online.
American tech companies have had to deal with Chinese government censorship and surveillance rules for years. Google initially brought Search to China by purging results about touchy topics like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, until ending the practice by pulling out of China in 2010. Microsoft’s LinkedIn agreed to censor anti-government material in order to stay online, while Facebook and Twitter have been largely banned since 2009, when they helped citizens spread news about deadly riots in Xinjiang.
Far more recently, Apple removed pro-democracy songs by Hong Kong singers from its Chinese music store. And despite using its commitment to privacy as a selling point, it moved some iCloud data to Chinese servers in order to comply with local laws — raising concerns about whether this might have a chilling effect on what data people feel safe storing. Just last week, Apple reportedly removed Taiwan’s flag from its iOS emoji library in Hong Kong and Macau.
These are sweeping, consequential decisions about speech — and even when companies object, it’s hard for them to stay away from the massive Chinese market. Google has slowly reentered the China with file management and translation apps, and it started building a search engine that could track users and censor certain topics before stopping amid internal protests. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt apparently disagreed with the decision to leave in the first place — he wanted Google to “stay in China and help change China to be more open.”
As Vox writes, though, it’s unclear that the web is opening up China; in fact, China might be making the web itself less open. Tech companies sometimes tout their refusal to cooperate as a moral victory — Google did so in 2010, and Facebook recently boasted that it would “hold firm” on not storing data in authoritarian countries. But as we’ve seen with Google, that’s a hard position to maintain. Meanwhile, ByteDance — the Beijing-based creator of massive social video app TikTok — had no compunctions about building political suppression into its rules worldwide. ByteDance has even faced accusations that it censored videos about the Hong Kong protests, although that’s a harder claim to prove.
China isn’t the only country that pressures Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies to remove certain content — European “right to be forgotten” laws can be used as censorship tools, for instance. Other authoritarian countries have influence in Silicon Valley — particularly Saudi Arabia, a major tech investor. Fears about the Chinese government have created a factually dubious panic around companies like Huawei, which has been widely banned from operating in the US. At least one American company, Facebook, has used these fears as ammunition against antitrust investigators — claiming that if regulators check Facebook’s power, a pro-censorship Chinese alternative will take its place.
And the anger over Morey’s statement isn’t necessarily a top-down sentiment from the government. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai argued that he’d offended local Rockets fans by questioning China’s sovereignty — and although there’s plenty of disingenuous propaganda online, Vox notes that there’s also a lot of sincere nationalism among real citizens. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that the NBA is suppressing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Between China’s massive economic power, its government’s penchant for heavy-handed propaganda, and its terrifyingly comprehensive surveillance state, there’s reason to worry when American companies are so sensitive about what their employees put online. And as tech companies face pressure from governments across the world — often for failing to remove harmful material — there’s ever more reason to avoid offending China. An NBA manager deleting a tweet will have very little effect on most people’s lives. But this is ultimately an issue for anybody who puts their opinion online.