Since October 4, 2019, the NBA has unwittingly found itself in the battle ground of a geopolitical conflict after Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets General Manager, tweeted an image with the words “Fight for freedom – stand with Hong Kong.” The owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, engaged in damage control, tweeting that “[Morey] does NOT speak for the [Rockets]” and emphasized that the team is “NOT a political organization.”
Yet, the damage was done. On October 6, 2019, Chinese sports media outlets retaliated by banning coverage of the Rockets. Nets Owner, Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, criticized Morey’s tweet for harming the NBA’s relationship with Chinese fans and characterized the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters as separatists.
The following day, the NBA apologized for Morey’s tweet offending “friends and fans in China” as “regrettable” but claimed it will not censor because the league supports individual expression. The NBA’s two-faced apology drew the scorn of many Americans including Democrat and Republican politicians.
Nor was China satisfied with the apology. On October 8, 2019, China’s state television broadcaster’s sports channel banned coverage of the NBA preseason and a Chinese tech company barred two preseason games on its streaming platforms. By the following day, all elevent Chinese companies that were official partners of the NBA severed ties. China’s response was a strong message to the NBA that it is not immune from paying homage to the Chinese Communist Party if it desires to do business in China.
The NBA controversy is illustrative of a broader business trend of U.S. companies compromising American values to gain access to China’s market of 1.4 billion people and its growing middle class. It’s hard to believe the NBA’s apology was not strongly influenced by the fact that an estimated 10% of the NBA’s current revenue comes from China, with that revenue potentially increasing to 20% by 2030.
Other American businesses within the past two years have caved to China’s pressure to conform to its propaganda. For example, in an Orwellian manner, U.S. airlines, no longer refer to Taiwan by its name, “Taiwan.” Similarly, fashion companies have not been immune from scrutiny. Luxury fashion company Coach apologized after a backlash from Chinese consumers, for making T-shirts that implied Hong Kong and Taiwan were countries, while Gap said sorry for an allegedly “incorrect map” of China, for omitting Tibet and Taiwan. Even hotel giant Marriot apologized for disrespecting China through a customer survey listing Tibet and Taiwan as independent countries.
It is clear that China is using American businesses to legitimize its claims over disputed lands. Unfortunately, American businesses have demonstrated little interest in standing up to China. Since the NBA incident, tech companies have already yielded to China’s pressure. Blizzard punished a player for openly supporting Hong Kong protesters, Apple removed the Taiwanese flag emoji in Hong Kong and an app tracking Hong Kong police, and Google removed a pro-Hong Kong game.
Numerous other incidents demonstrate the troubling trend of U.S. businesses abandoning basic values of free speech, democracy, and openness to do business in China. China’s economic growth has provided it the power to bully foreign businesses to comply with its wishes. Although American businesses have fortunately become more willing to advocate for social causes, they have overwhelmingly failed to take a principled stand on geopolitical issues involving China. Despite NBA superstar Lebron James’s claim that “[not] every issue should be everybody’s problem,” injustice abroad does not make it any less of an injustice.
American businesses truly have the power to make a difference in the world. We should hope they choose to use their power to make the right kind of a difference. In response to the recent events in the NBA, many Chinese fans “said they would choose patriotism over their love of the game.” One cannot help but wonder whether American businesses including the NBA may one day likewise summon the courage to unequivocally choose patriotism over their love of money.