A tale of two China scandals

On two separate occasions this week, Americans have offended China, and prompted the country to react.

First, the National Basketball Association was put in an awkward position when the General Manager for the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image with the message “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The Rockets, at the time, were in Japan for a preseason game.

The tweet caused an immediate crisis when Tencent, the Chinese media company that shows NBA games in China, announced that it will no longer show Rockets games this season.

A worker on Wednesday takes down a billboard advertising an NBA preseason basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai, China. The NBA has postponed Wednesday’s scheduled media sessions in Shanghai for the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, and it remains unclear if the teams will play in China this week as scheduled. (AP Photo)

Secondly, the creators of the show South Park produced a new episode entitled, “Band in China.” In classic South Park style, it mercilessly ridiculed Hollywood for creating content specifically tailored to avoid offending the Chinese government, so that they can sell their product in China.

The episode resulted in South Park being removed from the highly censored Chinese internet.

So two scandals, both resulting in China being offended, and responding by punishing the offenders.

The NBA immediately went into damage control. Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets, took to Twitter to disavow Morey. “Listen,” began Fertitta, “[Morey] does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”

Superstar Rockets guard James Harden, standing next to Russell Westbrook in what looked like a hostage video, then groveled at the feet of China. “We apologize. You know, we love China,” Harden said. “We love playing there.”

“They show us the most important love,” he continued. “So we appreciate them as a fan base. We love everything there about them, and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as an organization.”

Morey, for his part, undoubtedly threatened with his termination if he didn’t act like a good boy and lick the boots of the big red dragon, was no less sniveling. “I was merely voicing one thought,” he said on Twitter, “based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Tuesday night, two fans were thrown out of an exhibition game between the 76ers and Guangzhou Loong-Lions. Their crime? Holding up signs that said “Free Hong Kong.”

The game was held in Philadelphia.

And Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA decided that he needed to confront the issue. Disappointingly, his statement was a mealy-mouthed pile of mush clearly intended to try to appease everyone, and ultimately said nothing of substance. Some mild affirmations of respecting freedom of expression while pathetically sucking up to China at the same time.

Meanwhile, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park responded to the banning of their product in China by offering an “apology” of sorts.

“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the statement begins. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”

Now it is easy to say that South Park can get away with that because the loss of the Chinese market has less of a financial impact on them than it does the NBA. After all, there are more NBA fans in China than there are people who live in the United States, and the contract Tencent has with the NBA pays them $1.5 billion over five years to broadcast games.

The NBA’s explosive financial growth over the last 20 years is due in very large part to the growth of the game in Asia. Granted.

But while I am as much of a capitalist as you will find on planet Earth, I do believe that the NBA has a larger, moral responsibility to stand up for the values of free expression and openness.

A general manager of a basketball team standing up for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, against the violent oppression being visited upon that city by the Chinese government, is not a “problem” that needs to be apologized for. That is a core American value, and one which should be unabashedly celebrated.

If China doesn’t like that, then the NBA should, as painful as it will be, value those principles above its desire to make money, and refuse to throw American citizens under the bus for expressing a time honored American right to speak, particularly when it is on behalf of freedom.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.