Fight for Tweetdom

Terry McDonald and Benjamin Klasche write about the NBA, Twitter, and China with a picture by Karstein Volle.

“Fight for Freedom Stand with Hong Kong” – A tweet posted by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey on 4th October at 7.41 PM not only damaged the relationship of the NBA (National Basketball Association) and its most important foreign market (China) but also further escalated strained China-US relations. Furthermore, the incident provides evidence for the thesis that we are trending towards non-liberal globalization and world order. Let’s start with what happened exactly.

First off, it is important to know that China is hugely important to the NBA and that the Houston Rockets are by far the most popular NBA team in China. This took hold when – after years of minor inroads made by the NBA into China – the Rockets selected 7’6 sensation, Yao Ming, with the 1st overall pick in the draft and went on to spend his whole playing career spanning from 2002-2011 in Houston. Ever since, the Rockets enjoyed a special status with the Chinese fans. The NBA has since built on Yao’s popularity to a conservatively estimated $500 Billion USD annually made on deals in China. Secondly, it is important to note that the NBA has become the “woke” sports league in the United States – in which its most popular players frequently voice their opinions on social issues and sees their coaches criticize the president and weigh-in on hot-button politics.

By Karstein Volle ©

The friction brewing between these two facts bubbled over when Rockets General Manager took to his personal Twitter account to weigh in on the anti-government protests sweeping through Hong Kong since June. This seemingly innocuous act by American standards ended in an extraordinary backlash for Morey, the Rockets, and the NBA. Morey quickly deleted the post, but it was too late. As a reaction, the Chinese state television cancelled the transmission of the two NBA preseason games that were scheduled on 10th and 11th of October in China, which will lead to the loss of viewership of an estimated 800 million Chinese citizens. The streaming service Tencent, a major NBA partner, stated that it would refrain from showing Rockets games in the future. The Chinese Basketball Association headed by the same Yao Ming has suspended all relationships with the Rockets. Similar sentiments have also been expressed by newly minted Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai (a Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire) who acknowledges the right for free expression in his Facebook statement but adds that there are certain “third-rail issues in certain countries” which cannot be touched. He goes on by implying that Morey supports “a separatist movement in a Chinese territory” and that “the issue is non-negotiable”.  Finally, even the Chinese government representation in Houston weighted in and “expressed strong dissatisfaction” with the Houston Rockets. The NBA leadership attempted to salvage the situation by distancing themselves from Morey’s opinion. The NBA chief communication officer Mike Bass recognized that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable” and added later that the NBA supports individuals “sharing their views on matters important to them”. Houston Rockets owner (and Morey’s boss) Tilman Fertitta (author of Shut Up and Listen!: Hard Business Truths that Will Help You Succeed) also turned to Twitter and said that Morey does not speak for the Rockets organization.

In a world of US hegemony, one would expect the NBA and Fertitta to back Morey, but the potential loss of business seems to be threatening enough to have the hedge on their values. This is a common situation for many corporations seeking to do business with single-party states; a small misstep could mean losing access to the market.

The rules of globalization are changing. From back in the days when the Clinton administration granted Most Favored Nation status to China, the Western political argument was economic integration into the global economy would pave the way for liberal political values – Clinton saying at the time “Trade is a force for change in China, exposing China to our ideas and our ideals.” Most assumed that China’s successful integration in the global capitalist economy would soon be followed by democratization and freedom for its people, yet the contrary happened. China has used its growing wealth and economic influence to suppress its population, antagonize its neighbours and is now using it to inhibit free speech to a citizen of no other state than the United States. This is especially disturbing as Morey was advocating for democracy – the ostensible core American value. Is the age of exporting American democracy and human rights over? Is the new currency of the international economy authoritarian capitalism – a type of capitalism that withdraws liberal rights to ensure profit maximization? This stands in direct contrast to what the Western core expected to come out of the liberal globalization project. With the end of the Cold War, the West believed to be headed for the ‘End of History’ and see the ascend of liberal democracy on a global scale. This dream has been put on hold for a while now, and the incident from above is just an expression of the general development. China, but for example also Singapore, have shown that liberal market reforms do not require to adopt liberal political values.

Today, the Western world is grappling with this crisis of liberalism. We are still trying to combine liberal political and liberal market mechanism in harmony whereas the non-western world is ignoring these problems and can entirely focus on maximizing the benefits of the liberal economic system without  slowing down to consider human rights.

The reaction to the Morey incident may even show that globalization could be threatening freedom in the Western World – the power of Chinese capital combined with the Chinese government’s singular ability to restrict foreign actor’s access to said capital and the gigantic Chinese internal market makes Western actors hesitant to run afoul of Chinese government by even indirectly criticizing it. (This can arguably happen to states, too.)  LeBron James – outspoken politically on domestic issues in the United States – was eviscerated by fans on twitter for his public response that “I don’t want to get into a [verbal] feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke”. James has large-scale business interests in China – which seemed to outweigh the attachment to free speech that he exhibited in the Colin Kaepernick controversy. Perhaps LeBron, whose positionless style was an early bellwether for a systemic change in the NBA, is now a bellwether for a new positionless style when it comes to dealings with China.

Terry McDonald and Benjamin Klasche

Tallinn University