U.S. companies struggle with principles vs. Chinese might
The NBA is hardly the only U.S. business facing financial pressure to stay mum on China’s human rights abuses, but its predicament might have drawn more sympathy were it not for the league’s history of social justice activism.
Three years ago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pulled the All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina, over the state’s bathroom bill. The league halted use of the word “owner,” calling it racially insensitive, and big-name coaches such as Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs have routinely blasted President Trump.
But since China’s crackdown on the NBA after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet supporting democracy in Hong Kong, the league has been less than outspoken. Rockets star James Harden tweeted an apology — to China. Mr. Kerr told reporters he didn’t have an opinion on the matter and declined to comment.
Mr. Trump weighed in Wednesday, accusing Mr. Kerr and Mr. Popovich of “pandering to China” while declining to offer advice to the league. “The NBA knows what they are doing,” he said.
Jason Whitlock, right-tilting host of “Speak for Yourself” on Fox Sports, said, “The NBA is strangling on its own hypocrisy.
“They branded themselves as the social justice league … [but] you’re not social justice activists;
you’re business people. Because when China tells you to shut the hell up, everybody shuts the hell up,” he said.
While the NBA has drawn the spotlight this week, the league’s troubles in China are hardly unique. They mirror the difficulties faced by other Western corporations seeking to cash in on China’s billion-dollar retail market, second only to the U.S. market, as they learn that doing business with the easily offended Communist Party of China often means parking your convictions at the door.
“This is pervasive across our economy, and the companies usually don’t speak out,” said Hudson Institute senior fellow Robert Spalding. “It’s usually not public. But obviously, the NBA’s a very public organization and really can’t escape it.”
China’s penchant for censorship has heightened amid global support for the thousands of protesters taking to the streets of Hong Kong, often leaving companies doing business in China with a choice between growing their bottom line and standing up for freedom of speech.
“Quite frankly, they’re in conflict,” said Mr. Spalding. “That’s the problem for the leadership of these companies: They have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit, and the Chinese are basically destroying that. It really forces the companies to betray the principles and values of a free and democratic society.”
He pointed to the hotel chain Marriott International, which fired its social media manager last year after he “liked” a post listing Tibet as a separate country and the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration called for the company to apologize and “seriously deal with the people responsible,” as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
This week, California-based Activision Blizzard stripped gamer Chung Ng Wai of his title and professional winnings in the Asia-Pacific Grandmaster tournament after he appeared at a post-victory press conference in a gas mask like those worn by protesters and shouted, “Liberate Hong Kong!”
Posh jeweler Tiffany & Co. deleted an image of a Chinese model covering her eye — a symbol of the Hong Kong uprising since a protester was hit with a police beanbag in her right eye — even though the company said the photo was taken in May and was “in no way intended to be a political statement.”
Mr. Silver, who was in Shanghai on a previously planned visit during the breach, was credited for taking a stronger free speech stance Tuesday after the league came under fire for its initial statement saying Mr. Morey’s comments “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
“I do know there are consequences from freedom of speech; we will have to live with those consequences,” Mr. Silver said at a Tuesday press conference.
Mr. Popovich waded into the fray Wednesday, praising Mr. Silver for his “courage” and calling him “a very progressive leader” without directly mentioning China.
That left an opening for Mr. Trump, who said Mr. Kerr was “shaking” and “couldn’t answer the question” and accused the coaches of kowtowing to China.
“I watch the way that Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China, and yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s like they don’t respect it. I said, ‘What a difference — isn’t it sad?’ It’s very sad. To me, it’s very sad.”
Anger with the NBA also is uniting the right and left in Congress as a bipartisan group of eight House and Senate members — including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat; Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat; Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican; and Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican — wrote to the league demanding that it scale back its operations in China.
In the letter posted Wednesday night, the lawmakers condemned the league’s response to the Rockets manager and said it should, among other things, “suspend NBA activities in China until governmentcontrolled broadcasters and governmentcontrolled commercial sponsors end their boycott of NBA activities and the selective treatment of the Houston Rockets” and “reevaluate the NBA’s training camp in Xinjiang.”
The tension has spilled into the NBA preseason. Demonstrators from a human rights group called the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation protested at a Washington Wizards preseason game Wednesday night in the U.S. against the Guangzhou Loong Lions from China. But the league and/or its teams seem to be siding with China in the U.S. too.
When the Chinese team played Tuesday in Philadelphia, two 76ers fans were kicked out of the game for causing a disruption that the fans told reporters consisted of support for the Hong Kong protests. At the Wizards game, fans wearing “Free Hong Kong” T-shirts had a large protest sign confiscated.
Travis Weber, vice president for policy and government affairs at the conservative Family Research Council, said the NBA’s response revealed a double standard.
“We see corporate activism on issues where it’s palatable in elite circles to act along socially liberal lines, yet on other issues where they can’t so easily stand up, they seem them exposing their double standard,” Mr. Weber said.
While the NBA is trying to grow its brand in China, where the league is increasingly popular in a country with an estimated 300 million recreational basketball players, that’s not the problem, the league’s critics say.
“I understand businesses are in business to make money,” Mr. Weber said. “The problem is not with them saying, ‘We’re going to pursue growth and profit.’ The problem is when they portray themselves as socially enlightened actors and then don’t act consistently with their principles.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took a different stance after apologizing to China for Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting democracy in Hong Kong.