Tim Whyte | China’s Attack on the NBA and the First Amendment

By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

I was listening to the Tim Conway Jr. radio show on KFI on my way home the other night, and he was playing clips from a YouTube channel by a young man who was demonstrating how he basically couldn’t live his life without products made in China. 

Clothes in the closet? Virtually everything has the “made in China” tag. 

Waffle iron? Made in China. 

Toaster? Made in China. 

Bowls and plates? Made in China. 

So, essentially, this guy couldn’t get dressed in the morning or make breakfast without using Chinese products. And even if he could, he’d have no place to put his waffles or toast. 

It was a rather humorous illustration of how China’s economic influence has risen to de facto dominance. 

What’s not so humorous? How China is working its way into infringing upon the freedoms of Americans. 

Admittedly this is an isolated incident, but the fallout over a tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets in support of the democracy movement in Hong Kong has shown how China is willing to flex its muscles to not only infringe upon the rights of its own citizens, but also to suppress free speech right here in the USA.

Yes, the First Amendment is officially under attack by a foreign country.

For those who don’t follow basketball and its politics, here’s what happened:

It’s not usually “top of mind” in the U.S., but Hong Kong has been wracked by mass protests — sometimes escalating to violence — over what activists see as China’s attempts to crack down on Hong Kong’s separate government and capitalist economy, which is supposed to be preserved until at least 2047, which is 50 years after the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China.

About a week ago, Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets — which happens to be the most popular NBA team in China — posted a tweet saying, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

Then all hell broke loose between China and the NBA. Over one tweet.

China objected to the tweet on the grounds that anything that challenges what China perceives as its “national sovereignty and social stability” falls outside the bounds of “free speech.”

Lots of things fall outside the bounds of free speech in China. 

China’s government then started exacting revenge from the NBA, even after the tweet was deleted. 

The L.A. Lakers and Brooklyn Nets were to play exhibition games in Shanghai starting Thursday, and those games were promptly removed from Chinese state television. 

Advertisements for the games were taken down and player appearances with sponsors were canceled. Unless the NBA completely disavows Morey’s tweet, China has pledged to stop doing “business as usual” with the NBA — including the live streaming of NBA games, which draw hundreds of millions of Chinese viewers each year. 

This, of course, was unsettling to the NBA, because China is a vast emerging market for the basketball association, comprising, by some estimates, as much as 10% percent of the league’s current revenue — and that percentage has been expected to double in the coming years. 

The NBA’s first statement about the tweet described it as “regrettable” and said the Rockets GM had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver later said the league would not apologize for Morey’s tweet and pledged that the league would continue to support the free speech rights of its players and executives.

“The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say,” Silver said in a prepared statement. “We simply could not operate that way.”

However, according to CNN, “Since then, reports have circulated of security officials confiscating signs from fans criticizing China or offering support for Hong Kong at two NBA arenas during pre-season games.”

Right now, the NBA is between a rock and a faraway hard place. 

“The tweet has left the league and the Rockets with untenable choices,” the CNN report said. “They can fire Morey and apologize, which would be seen in America as putting profits ahead of free expression and caving to anti-democratic forces in China. Or they could stand behind him and risk losing the sport’s largest growth market.”

China may not match our military might, but it has aspirations of achieving it. Its economic power and influence are already well-established. 

Now, they’ve taken to using that influence to restrict the speech of a citizen of the United States, IN the United States, and leaving one of our nation’s most popular sports leagues walking a tightrope without a net.

It’s not an attack on our shores. But it’s a shot across the bow of everything America is supposed to stand for. And there’s not much humor in that.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter:  @TimWhyte.  

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