The NBA's Conflicting Relationship With China


The NBA, Once A Champion of Social Justice, Choked in the Face of Real Pressure

With one tweet, one of the league's most successful General Managers sent the NBA on a collision course with international politics and almost lost his job as result. Never mind that the tweet was in favor of democracy and freedom, two ideals that are as synonymous with the US as the 4th of July and cringe worthy Nicholas Cage movies. The tweet was a minor and irrelevant form of support for the pro-democracy protest groups of Hong Kong as they stand against Chinese intervention in their government. China struck back by banning NBA games in China and effectively ending all business relationships with the NBA. The NBA recoiled and walked back the tweet and released a statement that did all but openly declare their support for China.

What is this situation so delicate?

The relationship between Hong Kong and China has always been delicate because, while Hong Kong is technically part of China, they are considered a separate state which is supported by the fact that they get their own Olympic team. Part of this separations means Hong Kong gets to operate as a democratic state with freedom of speech while the rest of China operates under a communist regime with absolute control from the government and no freedom of speech.

Hong Kong gets to make its own laws and establish its own immigration standards despite been part of China and that is thanks to the British. The British won the First Opium War and as a result China ceded the control of Hong Kong to the British and in 1842 Hong Kong would be known as "British Hong Kong." A second Opium War won by the British and a 99-year lease meant the British would give the territory back to China in 1997.

By 1997 the British negotiated the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese on the condition that the territory enjoy democratic freedoms for a 50-year period which ends in 2047. This system came to be known as One Country-Two Systems, which guaranteed China would claim ownership to Hong Kong but still allow for an independent governing and economic system. A win-win, right? Well, yes as first.

Since 1997, China has gained more and more influence over Hong Kong's governing body and is now at a state where the Committee that elects the leader of Hong Kong is full of officials with Chinese loyalties. This means the same corruption and human rights violations that has been perpetrated by the Chinese government for decades has slowly seeped its way into Hong Kong.

This tension reached a boiling point when in September the head of Hong Kong proposed a bill that would extradite Hong Kong's criminals into China, a country whose judicial system can be labeled as a farce at best. In China, the government decides if you are guilty or not and that means the government can use the Judicial system as a means of political control and elimination.

Of the 7 million people that live in Hong Kong, this democratic freedom is at the backbone of a territory that wants nothing to do with China but realistically has no other option. China is too powerful and Hong Kong's physical location on the Southern border of China affords it no geographical protection. 76 percent of Hongkongers do not consider themselves Chinese but 100% of them have no choice.

Millions of Hong Kong's citizens came out in protest, a liberty that Chinese citizens do not enjoy. The bill would eventually be withdrawn but by that point the damage had already been done. In Hong Kong, major corporations that have favored the Chinese government are routinely vandalized. The Chinese government treats these protests as a form of direct dissent and anyone who expresses support for Hong Kong's protesters is deemed to be anti-China.

In international politics, there are very few occasions where there is a clear right and wrong side to take. This is one of those rare occasions. If you are pro-democracy and freedom of speech then you are pro Hong Kong, it is really that simple. But the NBA isn't alone. Major corporations like Starbucks, Vans and Tiffany Co. have taken stances that favor China despite the clear human rights abuses of a country that currently has millions of people in correctional camps.

So then, why have major Corporations like the NBA taken a stance that favors China? The answer is all in the money.

China boasts both the largest population and the second largest economy in the world. And in terms of global marketability, China is often regarded as the most important region in the world. For the NBA, the only possible expansion path to competing with the likes of the NFL and FIFA goes straight through China. So, when a general manager of one of the biggest NBA Teams tweets in favor of Hong Kong (even though Twitter is banned in China), China will feel a certain way about it. China has shown the ability to bully and bend international corporations into their will on the back of their economic importance. The NBA accidentally stepped in front of China and China struck back.

China responded by banning NBA games from viewership in the country and severing all ties to the NBA short of banning Chinese nationals from competing in the NBA.

What happens now?

This isn't the first time that the NBA has encountered a politically troubling situation but in the past, they got it right.

After all, this is the same NBA that was universally applauded for how they handled the Anthem debacle the NFL continues to struggle with. In that case, the NBA established a rule that players must stand while also providing avenues for players to voice their support for social issues. This is the same NBA that threatened to remove an all-star game from North Carolina after the state came out with a bill that was deemed to be anti-LGBTQIA. The NBA has amassed years of positive capital in the realm of social justice but were willing to throw it all away when it affected their bottom line.

So why did an NBA that has so often gotten it right when it comes to political conflict take such a negative stance?

The NBA is no longer an American organization but an international organization that must remain politically neutral if it hopes to maximize profits even if that political neutrality stands against basic human rights.

If anyone ever told you sports are about anything other than money, then they are willingly naïve to the realities of the world. The NBA was willing to be the cool, progressive sports organization as long as it benefited their bottom line.

When the NBA came into a crossroads of ethics versus money, they quickly threw one of their own under the bus.

This is not to advocate a boycott of the NBA or anything of that nature but rather offer an analysis into the truths of the relationship between business and sports.

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