In June 1973, more than two years after the U.S. table tennis team helped the Nixon administration open diplomatic ties to China, another delegation of American athletes was dispatched on a similar mission. At the invitation of the State Department, two teams of men’s and women’s college basketball players spent the month barnstorming the People’s Republic, which rolled out a Red carpet of dinners, receptions and fan events for its honored hoopster guests. Even Jiang Qing, then wife of Chairman Mao, made a surprise appearance at an exhibition game in Beijing. “It was a splendid scene of friendship,” wrote SI’s William Johnson, who accompanied the party, “with the small, dignified first lady of China reaching up, up, up to grasp the hands of the smiling young giants from America.”
That was the sell, anyway. From Ping-Pong Diplomacy to the 2008 Summer Olympics to its upcoming gig as hosts of the 2022 Winter Games, China has long used sports to foster a positive image with non-Communist governments: friendly competition as a reflection of open-mindedness. It is a smart tactic, if only because Western pundits tend to be suckers for the story line that sports can bridge geopolitical divides.
Which brings us to Daryl Morey.
With a seven-word message of support for protestors in Hong Kong who object to China’s growing control over the island, the Rockets’ GM wound up kindling an international firestorm. It didn’t matter that his tweet of Oct. 4 was swiftly deleted and the NBA issued an apology for “deeply offend[ing] many of our friends and fans in China.” It didn’t even matter that Twitter is inaccessible in China. Within days more than a dozen Chinese companies had suspended ties with the league; Rockets merchandise had vanished from the country’s major e-commerce sites; and broadcast magnate Tencent had announced plans to stop broadcasting Houston games. Even the Chinese Basketball Association, currently helmed by Rockets legend Yao Ming, couldn’t sprint away fast enough, canceling G-League exhibition games scheduled to take place later this month.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver can extol the possibilities of “basketball diplomacy” all he wants. But this episode has proved that the league is simply the latest in a long line of businesses to find itself paying a high price for tapping into the world’s second-largest economy ruled by an authoritarian regime. (Then again, the NBA already ignored morality in 2016 by opening a training center in Xinjiang, the region where an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims are being interned in camps.)
Over a four-day span in August, the CEO of Cathay Pacific Airways was apparently forced to resign because some employees participated in the Hong Kong protests, and fashion designer Donatella Versace penned a mea culpa after her company released a T-shirt identifying Macao and Taiwan as independent countries. Gap, Marriott, Delta, Zara and others had to make public apologies for similar offenses regarding Chinese territorialism in 2018.
“The main audience for this isn’t even the NBA; it’s future American companies who want to do business there,” says Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.–China Relations. “There is a Chinese expression: Kill the chicken to scare the monkey. This is Beijing saying, ‘Hey, look at what’ll happen if an employee writes something in support of Hong Kong.’ ”
But the playbook for market rehabilitation isn’t hard to follow. As a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman outlined at a recent news conference: “The NBA has been in cooperation with China for many years. It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”
That begins with apologies and self-censorship. “Certain companies will go through this gantlet, and the lesson they’ll learn is to tie themselves closer to what the Communist party wants and needs, and they’ll see their business improve as a result of this strategy over the long term,” Stone Fish says. “It’s fairly craven, but that’s what happens.”
By the time the Nets and the Lakers flew home after staging a pair of exhibitions in Shanghai and Shenzhen, though, the public furor had largely simmered. Chinese state-run media had even began cutting back on stories about the Morey incident, fearful that continued attention “could hurt its image in the sporting world,” according to a New York Times report. It was a sign that Beijing was blinking, as well as a reminder that the NBA held leverage too: China may threaten to restrict economic access to its 1.4 billion residents, but how would its estimated 500 million basketball fans (if state figures are to be believed) stomach, say, an entire season without being able to see LeBron James or Steph Curry on television? “Inevitably, everybody who interacts with China runs into Chinese sensitivities,” says Scott Kennedy, an expert on Chinese economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s just that here you’ve got these two behemoths: one of the world’s largest, fastest growing economies, and one of the world’s most successful global businesses whose stars can use their platforms to speak their minds.”
To be clear, the NBA can survive without the $500 million it reportedly earns from China. Its owners would still control an $8 billion business without having to worry about tripping geopolitical land mines placed by “an extremely thin-skinned” government, as Kennedy puts it. But aside from Google’s pulling out of the country in 2010, recent history is all but empty of businesses with the gumption to cut ties altogether.
With more apologies for offending Chinese fans, more silence about third-rail issues, more commitment to inoffensive concepts like friendship through sports, the NBA is likely to find a middle ground with the Middle Kingdom. But at what cost? The league has prided itself as progressive defenders of free speech. Maybe someday it’ll actually put its money where its mouth claims to be.