The U.S. and China’s trade war hits the hardwood


Grant Gaden

Contributor Grant Gaden outlines the feud between the NBA and the Chinese government regarding the protests in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy of CNBC.

The NBA season recently began and fans have many questions: Will the Clippers finally win their first championship after adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George? How will the Warriors bounce back after major injuries to Klay Thompson and the departure of Kevin Durant? And how did the Houston Rockets find themselves in the middle of a geo-political dispute between the United States and China before the regular season even tips off?

It all began when the Houston Rockets’ General Manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” which was quickly deleted, but not before causing an uproar from the Chinese government and swift backlash that saw Chinese officials remove all Rockets merchandise and images from the public. Even Chinese cable companies that offer streaming of every game of one NBA team of your choosing are forcing customers that selected the Rockets to choose a new team to follow. The Rockets also have one of the biggest fandoms of the NBA’s estimated $500 million market share in China, mostly due to the fact that one of the most famous Chinese born NBA players, Yao Ming, spent his entire Hall of Fame career playing in Houston. Currently though, Ming serves as an executive to the Chinese Basketball Association, which immediately cut ties with the team following Morey’s tweet.

If you haven’t been keeping up with the events Morey’s tweet was in reference to, Hong Kong citizens began protests back in June in response to proposals that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Protestors feared these new laws could undermine the established arrangement of “two systems, one country” since China regained control from Britain in 1997. The City Leader, Carrie Lam, agreed to suspend the extradition proposal, but protests have continued until now, developing into demands for full democracy and investigations into recent police actions.

This isn’t even the first time this year the Chinese government has moved to censor international critics. Earlier this year, German lawmakers were denied visas to enter the country after making critical comments about China’s human rights record, that includes reports that members of marginalized populations, like practicing Muslims and banned religions like Falun Gong, are being forced into prison camps that are harvesting prisoner organs to sell on the black market.

Not wanting to lose any potential earnings from their second biggest market, the NBA quickly bowed to Chinese pressure to distance themselves from the comments, including Rockets owner, Tilman Fertitta, and international Adidas spokesman and Rockets’ star player, James Harden, condemning comments made by their General Manager. Even the NBA received criticism for its initial response to the incident that said Morey’s tweet was “regrettable” and “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” In recent interviews, though, NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, publicly stated China had asked the NBA to fire Morey and despite the financial loss incurred by the league so far he would not be facing punishment or backlash from his actions by the league. This theme of members of the league distancing themselves continued this week when superstar and face of the NBA, Lebron James, made comments in a press conference that appeared to side with China saying, “we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative things that come with that too,” and “I also don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem.”

Some of the biggest star players throughout the history of the NBA have stood for causes they felt were important, and James is no different—he and other players wore “I can’t breathe” t-shirts in 2014 after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City Police. James also opened the experimental I Promise School that seeks to serve the underprivileged youth of his hometown, Akron, Ohio, to fight the high rate of high school dropouts in the community. Clearly he finds causes that are close to him and personally affect him, which makes it easy to see why he would support them, but few people have the power and platform of Lebron James.

So, when he actively chooses to side with an authoritarian government with a brutal human rights record, he’s making a clear statement that profit is more important than the rights of millions. No one is expecting an NBA player to fix years of political strife, but as one of the richest athletes in the world, he’s certainly in a position to bring attention to important issues without too much political or financial backlash. He’s the international face of the NBA and Nike basketball, one of the most recognizable athletes of all-time. It’d be one thing to not address the protests all together, but there were NBA preseason games played in China, and he actively suppressed their calls for freedom on a world stage.

James and the NBA’s positions are hardly surprising when the U.S. government has themselves routinely ignored China’s blatant mistreatment of their people in order to not hinder trade relations where a large percentage of U.S. goods are produced. The NBA being the top basketball league in the world gives them a unique monopoly of sorts over the entertainment product they produce, and in turn some leverage in how they want to distribute it. The U.S. is in trade agreements with other countries that require each member country to maintain certain rights and standards for their workers and consumers, and seeing how the NBA isn’t the main investment of most team owners, their decisions aren’t solely profit-based, meaning if they wanted to they could withhold games and coverage until improvements to China’s human rights policies were made. Obviously it would be a huge undertaking and the support of the U.S. government wouldn’t hurt, but with the increasing amount of American exports being entertainment related it wouldn’t be unrealistic to see something of the sort in the near future. Actions like this could also lead a movement of others in the entertainment industry to not bow to pressure and censor themselves in order to reach Chinese markets, like we’ve seen in the film industry.

By not taking the right side of history it weakens James’ and the league’s images as spokespeople for what is right. It’s easier to stand up for something you’re directly affected by, and James certainly has, but it’s even easier to turn a blind eye when issues don’t affect you personally. The image of James as a 21st century version of Bill Russel, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his powerful and persistent voice in the fight for equal rights, is somewhat tarnished when he decides to pick and choose what social causes deserve his and our attention.

James wasn’t incorrect in his comments—we have freedom of speech here and sometimes that does come with negative consequences, but unlike millions of people around the world we can speak freely without worry we might be imprisoned or killed for our beliefs. This is what makes it so out of touch for him or any NBA player or executive to not stand with the millions of protestors simply fighting for the same rights we enjoy here. So, at what point does ‘someone should do something,’ turn into ‘I should use my resources to do something’?