/The NBA–Hong Kong Controversy Suggests History Isn’t Ending How We’d Planned

The NBA–Hong Kong Controversy Suggests History Isn’t Ending How We’d Planned

Daryl Morey.
Photo: Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

When Bill Clinton called for China’s admission into the WTO two decades ago, he argued that such economic integration wouldn’t merely bring American products to the Chinese market, but also American values to Chinese politics.

“The change this agreement can bring from outside is quite extraordinary, but I think you could make an argument that it will be nothing compared to the changes that this agreement will spark from the inside out in China,” Clinton predicted in March 2000. “The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people — their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise. And when individuals have the power, not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”

China’s full integration into global capitalism has proven liberatory for its people in many respects. Unfettered access to foreign consumer markets and capital (along with illicit access to American intellectual property) has helped China sustain its rapid growth. And that growth has expanded and enriched the nation’s fledgling middle class, while pulling tens of millions of less fortunate Chinese workers out of extreme poverty.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of history: To this point, the economic benefits of globalization have done less to undermine China’s authoritarian government than to legitimize it. (This is not to deny that the dissonance between China’s liberal economic system and one-party state has produced real tensions and democratic movements. It is merely to acknowledge that under Xi Jinping, China has managed to grow more economically liberal and more politically autocratic simultaneously.)

This isn’t the future neoliberals wanted. But it isn’t one that they regarded as inconceivable, either. Clinton always laced his triumphalist predictions with caveats about Chinese agency: Globalization might open the door to democracy, but the Chinese people would still need to usher it in. Thus, Beijing’s failure to import our democratic values isn’t an indictment of Clinton’s geopolitical imagination. Xi Jinping’s burgeoning success at exporting Chinese political values to corporate America, however, sure looks like one.

On Friday night, the general manager of the Houston Rockets saw a meme calling on internet users to “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” Being a child of the Cold War, Daryl Morey initially processed this expression of solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in a communist country as a political sentiment so bipartisan and inoffensive, an NBA general manager could mindlessly retweet it. And so Morey did.

In so doing, he cost his team the sponsorship of both the Li-Ning shoe company and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Card Center. The Chinese Basketball Association — a federation led by former Rockets center Yao Ming — suspended its cooperation with the Houston franchise. The Rockets owner disavowed Morey’s outrageous views on the propriety of civil-rights protests. Conversations about firing Morey commenced. The general manager returned to Twitter Sunday night to assure the public that he had never intended to endorse any political struggle that might inconvenience him or his employer.

For its part, the NBA released a pair of statements on the matter, one in an esoteric dialect of American English known as “Crisis Communications Doublespeak”:

We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have offended so many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.

And a second in “State Chinese”:

We are extremely disappointed by the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of our Chinese fans. Morey has now clarified that his comments do not represent the position of the Rockets or the NBA.

For American NBA fans, this was all a bit jarring. After all, the league is famous for its relatively high tolerance of politically controversial speech. The NBA has allowed one of its most beloved coaches to call the president of the United States a “soulless coward” and its premier player to speak out against racist policing. If those divisive stances aren’t beyond the pale, why would voicing solidarity with Hong Kong — a cause endorsed by Democrats and Republicans alike — trigger a chorus of recriminations and apologies?

The answer is that getting on the wrong side of resentful Trump supporters does not threaten the NBA’s business model, but getting on the wrong side of Beijing does. The most coveted domestic demographic for both consumer-facing brands and sports leagues is young, urban-dwelling adults. And in the U.S., those consumers lean woke. Nike didn’t embrace Colin Kaepernick out of deep-seated commitment to combating structural racism. And the NBA hasn’t indulged their players’ free-speech rights on purely ideological grounds; associating itself with progressivism (or, at least, tolerance for progressivism) is a sound business proposition for the league.

But aligning itself against Chinese repression in Hong Kong is not. Basketball is the most popular sport in the world’s most populous country. There are more NBA fans in China than there are people in the United States. The NBA is poised to make $1.5 billion off its streaming agreement with Chinese media company Tencent over the next five years. The league and its ownership care a lot more about keeping that money in the bank than bringing democracy to Hong Kong.

In this respect, the NBA is hardly exceptional. As Max Read notes, in recent years, American and European companies have made a regular habit of apologizing for their accidental contradictions of the Communist Party line. Last year, Marriott fired a social-media manager for liking a post complimenting the hotel chain for its (unintentional) endorsement of Tibetan independence. Around the same time, Mercedes-Benz issued an apology for quoting the Dalai Lama on Instagram. After learning that one of its T-shirts featured a map of China that did not include Taiwan or various disputed islands in the South China Sea, the Gap expressed its regrets and affirmed its respect for “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Versace apologized for a similar offense in August, saying in a statement, “Versace reiterates that we love China deeply, and resolutely respect China’s territory and national sovereignty.”

By itself, U.S. consumer brands’ disinterest in advocating for Tibetan independence or democracy in Hong Kong isn’t especially concerning. But the cravenness of its capitulation on these largely symbolic issues (symbolic in the sense that Gap T-shirts are not going to make or break the “Free Tibet” movement) gives little confidence that corporate America will do the right thing in higher-stakes conflicts between its firms’ putative values and desire for Chinese market share. Heck, one can almost imagine Silicon Valley’s “don’t be evil” brigade helping Xi Jinping to build a better surveillance state.

Of course, America does not need to its import invasive intelligence agencies or authoritarian political movements. The leading threats to democracy in this country were all born in the USA. The scarily plausible alternative to Clinton’s dream of democratizing China through free trade is not Xi imposing one-party capitalism on the U.S. through the same process. Rather, it is that our plutocratic version of liberal democracy and China’s illiberal version of state capitalism will continue converging toward the same version of kleptocracy. Former World Bank economist Branko Milanović raised this menacing hypothetical in a recent interview:

In the “end of history” or “why nations fail” literature, the convergence is basically seen unilaterally: the terminus of history is liberal rule-based capitalism. But I think a very different convergence can be imagined … With the current movement toward plutocracy in liberal capitalism, you have rich people who are able to influence the policies of national governments. Essentially, economic power gets conflated with political power. In the case of political capitalism like China’s, it is political power that is often transmuted into economic power. The outcome in both cases may be the same: the concentration of both political and economic power in the hands of an elite.

U.S.-Sino relations are in a state of flux, to put it mildly. Political convergence is possible to imagine, but so is economic decoupling. The NBA taking a craven position on Hong Kong does not mean that our children are destined to live under a government of transnational unity led by a grand coalition of American and Chinese oligarchs. It just makes that specter a bit more haunting.