China’s reaction to the NBA is the wake-up call the world needed

President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019.

Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

Many financial journalists and political pundits have been trying for years to get the U.S. public more concerned about China’s increasingly repressive regime and the questionable trade-offs many American companies have been making to continue doing business in the country.

Thanks to the NBA, Twitter, and a Chinese government that feeds a national “outrage culture,” those journalists and pundits won’t have to try so hard anymore.

Coverage of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s now-deleted tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests, and the response to it from China and the NBA, has already earned more attention than dozens of other stories in recent years documenting similar questionable relationships between U.S.-based companies and Beijing.

For millions of people who have been a little more focused on the hardwood than hard news copy, this story is having much more of an impact than the years of reporting on Google’s questionable cooperation with Beijing on creating a censored, government-controlled search engine, or even the U.N. report that said China is holding a million people in “counter-extremism centres” and forced another two million in “re-education camps.”

Many of these newly engaged people are likely now learning that the last few years might have missed the fact that so much of what was promised to us about China hasn’t come true.

China’s increasing economic engagement with the free countries of the West was supposed to open the country up to more democracy and freedom. Instead, the overwhelming evidence shows the government in Beijing has used its growing wealth and economic influence to suppress the population even more, build up its military to antagonize more of its neighbors, and increase its repressive influence abroad with massive infrastructure programs that actually translate into high risk debt for the takers.

Millions of NBA fans who might have been excited or just indifferent about their beloved league’s increasing business connections with China, many are now asking whether promoting the game is worth the concessions and kowtowing to Beijing.

Based on what we hear on New York area sports radio that last few days, fans of the Brooklyn Nets are certainly asking that question and also scrutinizing new Nets owner Joe Tsai.

Tsai responded quickly to the Morey tweet controversy with a lengthy Facebook post Sunday night. Tsai’s post is exceedingly disturbing for two reasons. One, it reads exactly like something the government in Beijing would write, filled with trigger phrases the Chinese government often uses like “separatist movement,” “territorial integrity,” “sovereignty,” “invasion of Chinese territories by foreign forces,” and many more.

Second, Tsai descends into the same false argument Beijing often uses when it comes to the Hong Kong protests. The Chinese government likes to focus on the alleged separatist nature of the movement. That’s because it makes it sound like a destructive rebellion by an isolated part of the region.

But Tsai should know that the Hong Kong protesters are fighting for democracy, not separatism. In fact, they’re hoping their democratic fight spreads to the mainland and brings freedom for all Chinese people. It’s Beijing that’s promoting separatism by refusing to grant democratic rights to anyone, not the Hong Kong protesters. Thankfully, Tsai has not deleted many of the comments on his post that explain that very fact.

Tsai’s public reaction is informative as it helps us answer why China and so many Chinese people seem to be so thin-skinned about incidents like Morey’s tweet. Tsai’s references to China’s past suffering from invasions and hegemonic domination makes it clear that the regime and Beijing and perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese people are fully immersed in the culture of victimhood. That’s right, the world still fastest-growing economy and a nuclear-armed power to boot still considers itself a victimized nation with plenty of scores to settle.

Six months before the protest movement began, Hong Kong journalist and TV host Michael Chugani described just how strong and blinding this wounded attitude runs throughout all of China. Any insult to Chinese political sovereignty is automatically a major crisis-level incident. Chugani even noted that this culture of Chinese victimhood serves as an excuse for a myriad of insults and downright bigoted attacks against other people promoted on Chinese state TV with regularity.

The NBA is not likely to face a debilitating series of protests from U.S. fans who may be angered by the league’s agonizingly cautious and wavering responses to Morey’s tweet. But the extreme attention the story has garnered does weaken the NBA’s efforts to cast itself as a force for positive social change. Commissioner Adam Silver’s public declaration of his “personal outrage” over the racist comments made by former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014, and his pushback against the passing of the controversial transgender bathroom law in North Carolina in 2016 seem inconsistent now with a league that still remains silent about China’s many human rights abuses.

The NBA has now unintentionally brought the controversial compromises so many American businesses make with Beijing into their biggest-ever spotlight. To borrow an old marketing line used by the league in the 1980s, that new awareness is “FAN-tastic.”

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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