"Houston Rockets Basketball Court" by Bukowsky18 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Does Hong Kong even need the NBA?

A protest movement becomes a prop in the US culture war.

Originally published in Mother Jones. Republished with permission.

Last Friday night, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, tweeted an image with the seemingly innocuous text: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Within the hour, he was forced to delete the tweet, his account under siege by angry replies from Chinese nationalists. By Saturday, the Rockets had been effectively erased from mainland Chinese media coverage. In response, the league clarified that it did not defend Morey’s tweet; the Rockets’ owner issued a forceful statement of neutrality; and star guard James Harden stated simply, “We apologize. We love China,” the rhetorical equivalent of his signature, questionably legal stepback jumper. 

In the US, journalists and politicians piled on the NBA for its lack of conviction. Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke called the league’s “prioritization of profits over human rights” an “embarrassment.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he was proud to see Morey “call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors,” but that now the NBA was “shamefully retreating.” Just this summer, the league signed a five-year, $1.5 billion streaming deal with Tencent Holdings, one of the media companies to erase the Rockets’ presence, and by one estimate, the NBA China office is now worth $4 billion. Outside official activities, the China market remains an attraction for Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour, which regularly dispatch their biggest stars (and Derrick Rose) to exhibitions across China each summer. That this money is weighing on the minds of NBA owners and players is beyond question. “The NBA is a business,” we’re told time and again by players, management, and media tied to the league.

What seems far less certain, however, is the assumption implicit in much of the commentary that if only members of the NBA or Western leaders could more openly condemn the People’s Republic of China, they could somehow effect meaningful change and counter “China’s dictatorial apparatus.” Lost in the conversation, after all, is the fact that the group whose slogan Morey tweeted is actively asking the British government to intervene into Hong Kong and China politics. Indeed, although the league has been craven in its handling of the affair, one ironic effect of the blowback has been to fit the protests into a Western-savior narrative whose political benefits for the people of China and Hong Kong are dubious.

A former British colony, Hong Kong officially rejoined the mainland People’s Republic of China in 1997 as part of a complicated and evolving “one country, two systems” scheme. Its protests have raged since June, ostensibly in response to an extradition bill that, among other things, would make Hong Kong citizens subject to deportation to China if suspected of crimes there. But the movement is leaderless and comprises many political tendencies, from right-wing and nativist to liberal to anarchist and socialist. It is an extension of the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014, sparked by Beijing reneging on earlier promises to give Hong Kong citizens greater democratic rights.

But the frustrations are also economic and generational. Hong Kong’s level of income inequality is worse than that of any industrialized nation. For a decade, Hong Kong has suffered from the world’s most expensive housing, as hundreds of thousands live in illegal subdivided apartments of only a couple dozen square feet. Widening inequality has especially burdened the young, and not coincidentally, over half of the protesters are under 30 years old, most of them college-educated. Demands for “democracy” are about more than parliamentary and procedural reform; they’re also pleas for a greater voice in the economic future of Hong Kong and China. At the same time, many protesters are angered by the attitude of Beijing and Hong Kong officialdom that they can be bought off through development but without political participation. More recently, the protests have focused on the brutality of the local police response. The demonstrations are not solely about the bill or abstract notions of “democracy.”

At first glance, the Chinese state’s response to Morey is a departure from its relatively understated approach to the demonstrations. From almost the beginning of the summer, observers have watched with bated breath, fearing a second Tiananmen Incident in which the Chinese state crushes protesters through military might. But Xi Jinping and the party leadership, according to close observers, have adopted the strategy of simply waiting out the protests without the public threat of force, even as descriptions of local police brutality continue to stream through the news. The central authorities trust that the government and its silent majority of business elites have more staying power than the young and middle-class demonstrators, whose numbers have begun to dwindle.

Although the league has been craven in its handling of the affair, one ironic effect of the blowback has been to fit the protests into a Western-savior narrative whose political benefits for the people of China and Hong Kong are dubious.

But there is a big difference between trying to finesse the outrage of your own people, upon whom your legitimacy stands, and responding in kind to a foreign threat. This logic was laid out clearly by Joseph Tsai, the new Taiwanese Canadian owner of the Brooklyn Nets, whose astounding purchase price of $2.3 billion reflects the inflated value the China market has endowed all NBA franchises.

Tsai defended the Chinese government’s position in a late Sunday night Facebook post. He took readers along an unexpected, abridged version of modern Chinese history, detailing the two opium wars (1839–1842, 1856–1860) fought between the Qing and British Empires, as well as the catastrophe of the Boxer Uprising (1898–1901), in which the Qing court sided with an anti-foreign, peasant-based movement in northern China that was then unceremoniously crushed by European, American, and Japanese soldiers in a bloody display of imperialist bravado. Tsai concluded that Chinese citizens—all 1.4 billion—therefore felt a collective “strong sense of shame and anger” at the prospect of foreign intervention or of the “separatist movement” in Hong Kong threatening Chinese sovereignty.

Tsai’s post should not be read at face value as an account of history. Instead, it is a distillation of the PRC state’s media strategy for handling criticism of its policies. Legitimate grievances are simply deflected as part of an alien, foreign conspiracy against the Chinese people. Morey’s crime was not so much his message as his status as foreign messenger. If anything, his tweet and the international support for it may serve as a blessing for the PRC and its claim that the only people who defend the Hong Kong protests are “Western” agitators.

Indeed, one is not quite sure where Tsai, an East Asian studies major at Yale, gets his history from. He presents a caricatured version of China’s recent past as national mythology, in which a traditional imperial dynasty is awoken from its slumber by British warships in 1842 and the Chinese people suffer a “century of humiliation” before liberation by the Communist Party. It is an account that certainly dovetails with what he would have learned in Cold War–era Taiwan, which taught the island’s history exclusively as the history of mainland China. But it is also one that scholars today, both outside China and within, have long disavowed. The problem is not that the events Tsai lays out did not happen, but that they’re presented as a one-sided victim narrative. Never mind that the Qing dynasty itself violently sought to stamp out loyalists from the previous dynasty as well as other threats along the frontiers. Or that the current Beijing-backed Hong Kong government has just invoked a British colonial-era emergency law to quell protests by its own people. So much for intervention by “the West.”

American politicians share with their Chinese counterparts a predilection for denouncing foreign powers to distract from their own misdeeds.

Of course, such disingenuousness is not limited to one side of the Pacific Ocean. Calls by the United States for greater “freedom,” “democracy,” and “human rights” in China should be met with similar circumspection. The political cause of stopping Communist China has long helped to mobilize the American conservative movement, Joyce Mao has demonstrated, even if the Communist Party today differs dramatically from its initial incarnation. The greatest champions of Hong Kong and Taiwan in DC have been Republican stalwarts such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, politicians who may promote democracy in Asia but rely upon voter suppression at home, who denounce human rights violations abroad but defend the separation of families and confinement in cages at the Texas border. If anything, American politicians share with their Chinese counterparts a predilection for denouncing foreign powers to distract from their own misdeeds.

Imagine the mental gymnastics required to believe American politicians would uphold the abstract rights of Hong Kong citizens they will never meet more strongly than they already do for constituents in their own backyard. Talk of “rights” and “freedom” may sound nice in theory, but they require the backing of force and the alignment of national interests behind them; why should we expect American politicians to sincerely defend the rights and interests of Hong Kong as their own?

In an odd way, a similar deflection is happening in some of the liberal criticism of China. The focus on the repressiveness of the Chinese speech regime obscures the fact that the scandal exists only because a US corporation and sports league cartel freely muzzled its own employee. China’s method might seem exotically hamfisted to us, but we have our own speech police here, too; it’s just that they do not need state backing. In the American way, limitations on political expression are privatized and decentralized.

But the point is not to equivocate between good and bad guys, heroes and villains. It is to suggest that a moralistic approach to this affair—especially one that pits two countries against one another—has the effect of Westernizing the story of the protests. Does this really help anyone but Chinese and American state interests?

What, then, should be done? On the NBA side, it has been frightening to watch the political chill setting in. It’s clear that the owners and players should have thought twice about sinking half of their business strategy into a region whose politics and history they hardly understand. Certainly, any fan would be happy to see players and coaches at this stage express some convictions rather than cower in the face of lost fortunes. This may bring the focus back to the games for a league already reeling from the offseason roster turnover (the Warriors won’t even be good this year). But these are American concerns, about other Americans. The broader question this episode has magnified is what exactly America’s role in the East Asia region should be. Would American celebrities speaking out more forcefully actually benefit the people of Hong Kong and mainland China?

For those sympathetic to the Hong Kong people’s protests against increasing inequality and social repression, there are only so many political routes imaginable. “A tiny border city of 7 million people,” journalist Wilfred Chan recently observed, “cannot singlehandedly dismantle the hegemonies that ensnare it.” Contrary to Tsai’s depiction of the protests as a separatist movement, many protesters are aware that the goal of absolute independence is unrealistic.

Beware the star-spangled evocations of human rights and democracy. Very often these are words Americans use to talk about themselves.

Many have thus looked to foreign states for support and defense; some have even been caught waving the flags of the United Kingdom and the United States. This solution also invites insidious political consequences. Two weeks ago, activist Joshua Wong traveled to Washington, DC, to entreat Congress to pass a law that would ostensibly promote “human rights” and “democracy” in Hong Kong. Closer scrutiny of the bill, however, reveals it is designed to protect US interests above all else. Among other consequences, it would strengthen the United States’ ability to monitor activists’ migration across borders, and it would require Hong Kong to join the US in levying economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea. It would also force Hong Kong to extradite future political refugees, such as Edward Snowden, back to the US—the very sort of neocolonial relationship that the protests sought to challenge in the first place.

That this bill has been justified on the same abstract terminology of “human rights” and “democracy” that US journalists are now using to criticize the NBA controversy should give us pause about the strategy. Beware the star-spangled evocations of human rights and democracy. Very often these are words Americans use to talk about themselves. Just look at the lazy way journalists and politicians are jamming the Hong Kong protests into tortured analogies with the “woke” domestic causes, favored by NBA players, of paying student athletes, taking a knee, or ousting a racist owner. For too many critics, Hong Kong has become a mere prop in the US culture wars.

Here, as someone who hopes to return to China in the future and whose friends and family are part of the broader diaspora, I need to choose my words carefully: The global sympathy for the Hong Kong people has been heartening, unquestionably. But in the long term, relying on Western guardians can go only so far without addressing the challenges in Asia itself.

Another possibility, often overlooked, is to contemplate some sort of a political alliance between the Hong Kong protesters and the actual people of mainland China. Tsai claims that “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united” in their opposition to the protests, but in truth it is almost impossible for us, as outside spectators, to understand the real situation, as state-backed social media is quick to punish dissenting opinions. Nevertheless, we know there are plenty of PRC citizens living abroad who are freely voicing criticism of the Hong Kong police, and reports from journalists based in China also paint a more complicated picture. Both in person and online, Kiki Tianqi Zhao reports, Chinese citizens are privately expressing a diversity of opinions toward Hong Kong, “from admiration to disdain, confusion, and even indifference.”

As unrealistic as it may sound today, it is possible that the best hope for Hong Kong protesters to make a lasting impact is not to look halfway around the world but to somehow make their demands resonate with people in China as well, particularly with those feeling the same material squeeze as the Hong Kong youth are. This would require elevating certain aspects of the protests over others. There is a prominent pro-liberal strand among protesters who view themselves as more Western than Asian; these were the people with whom Morey—a Romney voter with a private equity background who is hardly anyone’s idea of a social radical—was expressing solidarity. The flipside to this sentiment, though, is a well-documented nativism directed against mainland Chinese visitors, mocking their poverty and their supposedly crass and vulgar behavior. Both are politically shortsighted.

A more hopeful avenue is to imagine the links between working people located across political boundaries yet united in their dreams for better material living conditions. Hong Kong–based unions and NGOs have helped shine a light on worker grievances in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong Province, just over the border, which serves as China’s “workshop to the world.” Last fall, unionizing efforts at Jasic Technology, a Shenzhen-based welding parts company, drew sympathy from across Asia. And this spring, technology workers in China used the platform GitHub to disseminate a public campaign against the pressure for overwork in China, known as “996 culture” (working 9 to 9, 6 days per week), garnering support worldwide. Others, meantime, have written about the possibility of mutual understanding, even solidarity, between PRC and Hong Kong students living overseas in more permissive environments. Last month, Shan Windscript documented examples of solidarity from mainland students studying in Sydney, Australia.

When nationalistic journalists in the US suggest that NBA players and managers must stand up for the ‘Western’ values of democracy and human rights against illiberal China, they only play into the hands of the PRC’s media strategy.

More generally, it is a fact that the economic development of China could not have taken place without Hong Kong, and vice versa. Even today, the city retains no small amount of leverage, as it is still the “lungs through which Chinese banks breathe.” If the economic fates of the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese people remain connected, then it makes sense that positive transformations for one will necessarily require change for the other.

For those of us on the outside, it’s important that in our sympathy for the protests we resist the temptation to portray China as a country of 1.4 billion people blindly parroting the official line. This is a fiction being wielded by both the patriotic Tsai and some of the liberal critics of the NBA. In the words of the New York Times, “There is no freedom of speech, thought, assembly, religion, movement or any semblance of political liberty in China.” This latter sentiment stems from the classic playbook of anti-Communist Orientalism, which depicts the Chinese state as an unchanging, “autocratic,” “authoritarian,” “totalitarian,”and “Communist” despot and its people as a herdlike population in need of rescue by outside saviors. Such portrayals ignore the possibility of disagreement within China itself. Ironically, in painting a picture of national unity, they do the PRC officials’ work for them, as Zhao points out.

When nationalistic journalists in the US suggest that NBA players and managers must stand up for the “Western” values of democracy and human rights against illiberal China, they only play into the hands of the PRC’s media strategy. Party mythology there hinges on the conceit that the protests in Hong Kong are really a contest between true Chinese patriots and foreign meddlers such as Morey. It overshadows the possibility of a larger political principle that could appeal to broader audiences across the border separating the two societies.