China Syndrome: Kowtow for Wrong-Think

“Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”

Recently, these seven words were posted on Twitter and quickly deleted.

Who would have thought they could cause so much trouble? But here we are…

Perhaps you only follow news at a distance; or you follow sports news at a great distance.

But even if you live under a rock, you’ve likely seen reports about this short tweet by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets.

The Chinese are angry about this tweet. Official Chinese media make no secret of their nation’s collective rage.

The tweet is, of course, but one man’s opinion; and no big deal in America, where the 1st Amendment and freedom of speech is part of the cultural and legal landscape.

Apparently, though, this particular opinion – and using the words “freedom” and “Hong Kong” in the same line – is highly offensive to many people in China; which is saying something considering China’s vast population.

The matter of Morey’s tweet has quickly escalated. It’s now a source of international tension between China and the U.S.  In a sense, it’s a political star-shell, illuminating not just the basketball business, but a much larger battlefield.  Let’s take a look at what’s going on…

It’s worth noting up front that almost no one in China saw Morey’s short tweet. Twitter is not available in China. It’s banned, in fact. Chain has tight restrictions on citizen access to foreign content. In other words, to almost all Chinese, Morey’s tweet is like a tree that fell in the woods. Nobody saw or heard it.

Yet Morey’s tweet is national news across the Middle Kingdom. China’s government has made sure of it. The tweet was instantly transformed into a government prop with which to score political points concerning China’s administration of Hong Kong.

Currently, Morey’s tweet drives a large element of the U.S.-China news cycle. The tweet is even influencing the business and diplomatic climate between the world’s two largest economies.

Meanwhile – and ironically! – in Washington, D.C., where political knives are out with respect to impeaching President Trump, this recent China “basketball” issue is actually uniting opposite factions.

For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a self-described Rockets fan, recently noted that he was proud to see Morey “call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protesters in Hong Kong.”

Across the political divide, New York Senator Chuck Schumer released a statement that “No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom.”

Thus, China tensions run high over the comments of a single basketball coach. Yet, I suspect that much of the current basketball brouhaha isn’t really about a now-deleted tweet that few people saw.

No… This Twitter-spat is more about how the world’s overall relations with China – yes, the world’s; and not “just” from the U.S. standpoint – are finally coming to a head.

Let’s drill a bit deeper into coach Morey’s tweet, to which so many Chinese have taken such umbrage.

You probably know that Hong Kong has been the site of street protests for about four months.

Hong Kong governance is a highly contentious matter within China. Locals want to retain certain freedoms that they’ve enjoyed for much of the past century, when the place was a British outpost. Beijing, however, wants Hong Kong to fall into line per the Chinese system of Communist governance.

Obviously, stakes are high. Hong Kong is a hot button issue for China and Chinese everywhere. (And of course, people across the world are watching as well.)

Shortly after posting his tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters, Morey felt blowback and deleted the item. He apologized for expressing his sentiments. “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” said Morey.

From the front office, Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta promptly disavowed the general manager’s views. Not good enough, according to many Chinese. Even a short-lived tweet, seen by almost no one, was enough to hit a nerve in Beijing.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

“China Central Television and People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, editorialized against Mr. Morey. CCTV’s sports channel said it won’t air Rockets games anymore. The Chinese company Tencent, which holds exclusive digital rights to NBA (National Basketball Association) games in China, said it will stop showing the team online, taking with it the 490 million fans who watched NBA games on its platforms last season. Next, two Chinese sponsors dropped the Rockets, the highly popular former team of Shanghai native Yao Ming, and the Chinese Basketball Association ceased all cooperation with it. That was China’s first-day response.”

At the ethereal levels of professional basketball, the NBA released an English-language statement that affirmed both Beijing’s concerns and the league’s support for “individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”

Simultaneously, the NBA issued a Chinese-language statement which began, “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comments by the General Manager.”

Within two days of his tweet, coach Morey was not just tossed beneath the proverbial bus by the NBA, but reduced to groveling: “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” he declared.

The subtleties of “complicated” events are lost on official China; especially when they concern issues of national sovereignty such as who runs the show in Hong Kong.

Along these lines, “wrong-thinking” has long been consequential in China. Bad posts or opinions will rapidly cost you friends.

According to Hu Xijin, editor of the state-controlled Global Times newspaper, “If the Rockets want to keep its Chinese market, the team need (sic) to avoid offending Chinese public.”

That would be the same “Chinese public” which lacks access to Twitter, and of whom virtually no one saw Morey’s tweet.

At this point, it’s hard to know what’s good enough to appease the angry Chinese. They certainly know how to nurse a grudge.

By way of comparison, here are some examples of recent thought-crimes by other businesses.

In 2018, Marriott International apologized to the Chinese government after listing Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macau as stand-alone countries on an email questionnaire it sent to members of its rewards program. Then, to ensure that Marriott understood the need to toe China’s hard line, authorities shut down Marriott’s Chinese-access web site and various apps.

More recently, China cracked down on luxury brands Versace, Givenchy and Coach after they produced promotional materials that failed to list Taipei, Hong Kong and Macau as part of China. The companies issued “groveling apologies,” according to the Atlantic Magazine.

China’s reach extends even into U.S. movie theaters. According to the Atlantic Magazine, “It’s become almost routine for Hollywood producers to scrub scripts of anything that might offend thin-skinned Chinese censors and prevent a film from showing in lucrative Chinese theaters.”

Meanwhile, stories are legion of how the Chinese government has demanded technology transfer, and access to intellectual property from U.S. and other Western companies that want to do business there. Sometimes, it’s a polite request for cooperation; other times, it’s just raw intimidation. One way or another, it’s an “offer you cannot refuse,” to borrow an old phrase.

Indeed, it’s not far-fetched to say that “when dealing with Western businesses, intimidation is China’s policy of first resort.”

As mentioned above, the basketball ruckus isn’t really about basketball. The alleged issue is an obscure tweet that few Chinese even saw. It could easily have been just a passing shadow; overlooked and quickly forgotten. But overlooked only if Chinese authorities had been wise enough simply to blink, and let the world turn.

More likely, key players within China’s governing organs felt compelled to use the tweet as a tool with which to bash insolent outsiders; bash a basketball coach personally, and U.S. corporate basketball and the NBA at higher levels. Send a hard message, in other words.

Likely, the speed and incendiary nature of the Twitter-ruckus reflects official Chinese frustration – if not rage – at continuing Hong Kong protests. Chinese leadership has not yet sent in tanks to crush Hong Kong, a la Tiananmen Square. But as Hong Kong riots, Chinese leaders must be stewing in anger beneath their stoic outward appearance.

At a higher level, far above the basketball hardwood, we’re looking at how two different cultures – China and the U.S. – fail to mesh when the subjects of freedom and free speech find their way into the mix. Basketball is one thing. Basketball and “freedom” is quite another.

Of course, we trade with China. Every nation in the world trades with China. China imports raw materials, runs resources through the China, Inc. mill and exports all manner of everything to the far corners of the earth. Along these lines, the West has made China wealthy. You know the story.

Indeed, over the past four decades, the U.S. has exported a large amount of its former industrial economy to China. Tens of thousands of factories; millions of jobs. The loss has moved the national economic needle, to be sure; it’s a large part of how a certain Mr. Donald Trump became Mr. President Donald Trump.

Factories aside, there are U.S.-China cultural exchanges; everything from traveling U.S. symphony orchestras and Chinese acrobats to… NBA basketball games.

China has long been okay with U.S. basketball until… Well, see above.

Looking back over the past 40 years, one grand thesis behind engaging with China has always been the idea that if “we” trade with each other, the Chinese will open up and become more like “us.” Trade and exchange will beget more freedom and openness from China. That was the idea, anyhow…

But now, as we watch the hyperbolic Chinese reaction to a tweet that went practically nowhere, the writing is on the wall. The U.S.-China dynamic is worrisome, even to the greatest of Sinophiles.

For all that trade… For all that tech transfer… For all the money that moved from West to East… Instead of China becoming more like “us,” it’s the West that grovels when China shows its angry face and demands a kowtow.

Sad to say, from all appearances it’s “us” who appear to be transforming to become more like “them.”

And on that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now…  Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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