The Chinese government won’t put up with this sort of thing. And LeBron James darn well knows it.
The NBA star suggested Monday it’s better to just shut up and keep your head down than risk offending the rulers of China. Even a seven-word message on Twitter from an NBA general manager can get under their skin, as James and the NBA learned last week.
“So many people could have been harmed, not only physically or financially, but emotionally and spiritually,” James told reporters Monday. “Just be careful what we tweet, what we say and what we do. We do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative things that come with that too.”
Such fear has revealed a mini-clash of civilizations in an increasingly globalized world, all started by a tweet and driven by a fundamental question about political power:
Why would the world’s most populous country – an economic superpower – get this offended about a since-deleted message posted on social media by a single American sports administrator who isn’t even familiar to most American sports fans?
After all, millions of Americans see revolting messages on social media every day. They deal with it and move on. By contrast, nuclear-armed China practically threatened to shut down the NBA’s business there after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey temporarily posted an image on Twitter Oct. 4 that said, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
Is that really all it takes to hurt the feelings of the ruling Communist Party in China?
Yes, experts say, that’s really all it takes. And that’s also why they suggest this issue won’t be forgotten by China and is bound to flare up again. The bigger question now is what happens the next time China gets bothered by something else.
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“The paradox is that the Chinese leaders, with all their power in the world and control at home, are deadly frightened that their regime might topple,” said Stein Ringen, a Norwegian political scientist and author of The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century. “These men, who seem so assured, do not sleep at peace at night. As a result, they react with brutality against any slight.”
When the next slight comes, experts say China will expect the offender to fall in line with the usual response. At a minimum, that means an apology and muting of any message that even remotely challenges the power of the authoritarian regime or its “sovereignty.”
In the case of the NBA, Commissioner Adam Silver said last week the league was “not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression” but said he regretted that people got upset over his tweet. The NBA also shut up about Hong Kong, where protesters have been fighting for democracy and autonomy apart from mainland China and its one-party government in Beijing.
Even James, who has been outspoken about domestic politics, apparently would rather side with China against Morey than risk billions of dollars in business in China with media, apparel and other deals, including an estimated $500 million in annual NBA revenue from China alone.
China’s warning shot
James said Morey was “misinformed” or not properly educated about the potential consequences of his tweet before he posted it. He said, “We all do have freedom of speech but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself.”
Those ramifications all but crushed James and NBA during their preseason tour there last week. State TV in China blacked out NBA games. NBA advertising in China was torn down or removed. NBA press conferences in China were canceled.
On the other side of the geopolitical divide, the league also got bombarded with criticism in the U.S. for not more strongly supporting freedom of speech against China. Yet the NBA still seemed somewhat brave compared to the many other American companies that have faced the same choice between making money in China or sticking up for American values.
One side often wins that battle, even when the whims of Beijing seem increasingly less reasonable. For example, Twitter is blocked by the government in China. Chinese citizens technically shouldn’t be able to see it or use it as a result. A deleted tweet on a blocked website from some guy in Houston shouldn’t really matter then, either. But it does.
Likewise, clothing retailer The Gap last year apologized for selling a T-shirt of a Chinese map that didn’t include the island of Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that China still claims as its territory. The Gap said it would destroy the shirts in China and said it mistakenly failed to reflect the “correct map” of China.
“If the Chinese leadership can pressure companies to play by Beijing’s script, it will do so,” said Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall whose research focuses on law, criminal justice reform and human rights in China. “It’s worked.”
Though the NBA has billions at stake in China, its global brand and beloved celebrity players also give it lots of leverage – much more so than, say, The Gap. James and the Los Angeles Lakers still attracted a sellout crowd in China for a preseason game last week amid the controversy.
“Given the high popularity of NBA in China, perhaps over time this conflict could soften,” said Maria Repnikova, an assistant professor at Georgia State and author of the book Media Politics in China: Improvising Power under Authoritarianism.
The key words are “this conflict,” which doesn’t apply to the next one or the one after that. Repnikova notes that Morey’s tweet came at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-China relations. Besides the conflict in Hong Kong, China is engaged in a trade war with the U.S. that’s led to global economic anxiety. Against that backdrop, Repnikova told USA TODAY Sports that China’s reaction to Morey’s tweet can be viewed as a warning shot to others – a “signaling mechanism for other U.S. companies and entities to practice more caution in discussing China’s politically sensitive issues publicly.”
In that regard, China’s reaction succeeded, for now, though experts say it’s only a matter of time before a similar crisis emerges.
‘It’s not their habit to back down’
That’s because this is what happens when companies from a country that values democracy and freedom of speech try to make money in another country that considers such values to be threatening to its very existence.
They try to toe the line, even if the line isn’t clear. Government officials in China also recently have tried to crack down on foreign names on buildings in China, suggesting such names aren’t appropriate because they hurt the nation’s feelings.
“This happens all of the time within China itself,” said Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese governance at Fordham and author of the book End of An Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise. “Domestic (Chinese) firms and international companies are perpetually altering their self-depictions to correspond with tacit or direct political signals. This is just part of being in an authoritarian one-Party state which doesn’t have a free press, has been pushing a strongly nationalist line among the public for decades, and in which lower-level bureaucrats are always worried about making a misstep that might cause them to fall out of favor with their superiors. “
Minzner said this has gotten worse in China, devolving into a more closed, nativist autocracy under Chinese President Xi Jinping. This, in turn, suggests that American companies there will be expected to continue to bend in even more away from the direction of democracy. But their choice isn’t necessarily binary between following orders from Beijing or not doing business in China at all, Lewis said.
“This is the lightning rod right now,” Lewis told USA TODAY Sports. “This hits any American or foreign company involved with China. There needs to be deep think about a company’s values: what they stand for and what compromises they are willing to make in order to have market access.”
Some kind of trade-off still will be required, now and over the longer road ahead. The question is how big it will be.
“It’s not their habit to back down,” Ringen said.