Washington’s flood of ill will towards Beijing may be spilling onto America’s streets, according to pundits and policymakers measuring the impact of the Twitter post that sparked the National Basketball Association’s China crisis.
The since-deleted tweet supporting anti-government protesters in Hong Kong by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has elevated the topic of China’s censorship among Americans in a bigger way than US President Donald Trump’s trade war has highlighted trade imbalances, intellectual property violations and a host of other issues the US government has been pressuring Beijing about for decades.
“Nobody knows what an entity list is,” said Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Centre’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, referring to the US Commerce Department’s list of foreign firms that US companies are restricted from doing business with. “And everybody knows what the NBA is and who James Harden is, and they all know what South Park is.”
The Commerce Department has put more than 100 Chinese firms and public security bureaus on its entity list this year for activities that allegedly undermined American national security or repressed the human rights of religious minorities in China – issues that have resonated among lawmakers and Washington policymakers since before Trump started his trade war with China last year.
However, those matters have not dominated social media or talk show circuits as explosively as the NBA Twitter controversy that may lead to the end of the league’s business in China – a market it had been cultivating for decades – despite apologies from NBA players including the Rockets’ star player Harden, and evasive comments by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Facing an onslaught of attacks from Chinese fans and partners, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said on Tuesday: “The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and Daryl Morey enjoyed that right as one of our employees.
“I also understand that there are consequences from that exercise of his freedom of speech. We will have to live with those consequences,” Silver added, making the league’s response the most prominent defiance of Beijing’s hard line on political expression since Google largely abandoned its China business nearly a decade ago.
Google exited the Chinese mainland in 2010 after refusing to comply with the Chinese government’s order to censor its search results. Beijing subsequently blocked Google’s services on the mainland.
Trump remarked on the controversy on Wednesday, criticising those who “were pandering” to China and keeping the issue in the headlines.
“They have to work out their own situation. The NBA, they know what they’re doing,” Trump said in his first public comment on the fallout the league has endured in China. “I watched 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.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also chimed in, encouraging more companies operating in China to question Beijing’s edicts.
“I think American businesses are waking up to the risks” inherent in compliance with the Chinese government’s rules, Pompeo said, according to the transcript of an interview he did on the television programme PBS NewsHour on Wednesday.
“It may seem that it makes profits in the short run, but the reputational costs … will prove to be higher and higher as Beijing’s long arm reaches out to them and destroys their capacity for them, their employees – in the NBA’s case, team members and general managers – to speak freely about their political opinion,” Pompeo said.
China’s wrath has also been directed at another American cultural institution while the NBA controversy has flared.
American television channel Comedy Central screened an episode of its popular animated series South Park called “Band in China”, which mocked censorship in the country. Chinese authorities quickly scrubbed all references to the show from internet sites and social media platforms, while discussion forums about the series were removed or shut down.
South Park’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker went further than the NBA in responding to China’s actions, with a sarcastic apology to the Chinese government that included a tongue-in-cheek reference to a resemblance between President Xi Jinping and the animated character Winnie the Pooh.
“What used to be the gap between the hard consensus on China in Washington and the ambivalence or bias towards a positive perspective on the street, that gap is closing,” Jude Blanchette, chair in China studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.
“This contretemps over the NBA may well be the issue that brings them together, because packed into it is issues of censorship and a values clash and of the Communist Party using private companies to enforce its political mandates,” said Blanchette, who is also the author of China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, agreed that the past week had created a wider cultural rift between the US and China.
“I cannot emphasise enough how important this NBA moment is,” said Bannon, who also co-founded the Committee on the Present Danger: China, a group that advocates for a decoupling of the US and Chinese economies.
“We’re seeing a collision of all of the concerns running across censorship to ideological competition to Xinjiang to economic competition to the Communist Party of China’s weaponisation of the private sector, of growing awareness in the United States about China,” Bannon said. “All of these have come together this week.
“It cuts so against the American sense of fairness. Eighty per cent of the American population was probably not focused on Hong Kong as much, but now, over the past 72 hours they're getting immersed in it and coming down hard in solidarity with the protesters.”
Additional reporting by Owen Churchill
This article How NBA crisis crystallises US-China culture clash better than the trade war first appeared on South China Morning Post