The hundreds of thousands of protesters who’ve flooded the streets of Hong Kong these last four months are righteous, incredibly heroic and — I’m starting to think — also a little bit naive. They’re the ones (at least some of them ... the politics are quite complicated) waving U.S. flags into the neon night and claim that they’re fighting for the same values as America’s Founders — things like justice and the freedom to assemble and to speak freely.
Now we know that if the brave citizens of Hong Kong really wanted America’s politicians and titans of capitalism to intervene on their side, they should have been waving giant dollar bills for the camera, and telling any reporter who’ll listen that what they’re really fighting for is the right to consume, to spend freely on Starbucks’ latte and Apple’s iPhone 11 just like Thomas Jefferson wrote it up in the Declaration of Independence.
By now, everybody knows about the tweet heard 'round the world — the thing it finally took to bump President Trump’s impeachment off the news at least for a few minutes. That would be the seemingly innocuous (unless you’re deeply invested in the glory of the people’s revolution in China, as 1 billion folks apparently are) tweet last Friday by Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, which said “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Those six words triggered anger and fury across China — still drunk on the massive rocket-launchers from the 70th birthday bash for its totalitarian dictators — and a rash of cancellations of lucrative Chinese-NBA endorsement and TV deals, with in turn has prompted a tsunami of apologies, not just from Morey — who deleted his tweet and may have deleted his career — but from virtually every other American who has ever touched a basketball.
As the uproar was peaking on Monday came this plea for forgiveness, that “we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look like Winnie the Pooh at all... May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful.” It kind of sounds like the NBA — if the NBA had a sense of humor (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
But actually that’s the “apology” from the creators of South Park, who, in a lucky coincidence, just broadcast an episode lampooning Chinese censorship (and Hollywood’s willingness to comply), which had the probably-desired effect of getting the show, and any mention on Chinese social media, banned by the largest dictatorship in human history.
So, got it! ... South Park is daring and cool while the NBA and its hapless commissioner Adam Silver are a bunch of cowardly, humorless dorks. But here’s the thing: Trey Parker and Matt Stone can flip the bird at Xi Jinping because after 47-or-whatever-years of South Park AND The Book of Mormon, they have enough (bleep)-you money to get banned in China, build their irreverent “brand,” and still buy half of Utah. In the matter of the NBA and China, it’s Xi Jinping who holds all the (bleep)-you money. Capitalist sharks like the NBA will die if they don’t keep swimming in growth, and the only growth is 1 billion Chinese watching games over their breakfast tofu pudding in Warriors’ t-shirts.
There are no true moral values in capitalism, just the tyranny of “brand building.” Adam Silver, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are all playing the same game with different dribbles.
So is Donald Trump. Interestingly, there was barely a peep last week when — amid the every-10-minute flurry of shock headlines — it was reported that the soon-to-be 45th ex-president promised China’s President Xi in a June phone call that he’d remain silent on the American-flag-waving, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong (a promise he’s kept, by the way) as long as the U.S. and China were still wrangling over the future of billions of dollars in commerce. I guess we’d be more outraged by Trump’s lack of concern for human rights if he had a better 3-point shot?
Or maybe the lack of outrage is because this is rare case of Trump, in his refusal to embrace the cause of Hong Kong (or scores of other people’s uprisings around the globe), for once repping the real zeitgeist of the nation he so badly serves as president. Why should the White House pretend to care about Beijing’s appalling human-rights abuses when a company called Google that once pretended its motto was “Don’t be evil” worked for years on a censored Chinese search engine (finally cancelled) or when you can stroll into Costco and (before today) buy pajamas that were sewn by China’s ethnic Muslims who’ve been rounded up in forced concentration camps.
Indeed, China’s repressive, anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong, while utterly reprehensible, still has a long way to go to sink to its treatment of its Uighur minority, who can’t walk down their city streets without high-tech spying — facilitated by our Silicon Valley inventors — and increasingly have been rounded up and thrown into large “education centers” that are actually concentration camps. The fact that the nation that does this is today America’s largest trading partner makes a mockery of “Never Again” and our Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As the rest of the world races to catch up with China in the authoritarianism department, whatever you would have done in the 1930s to protest this sort of thing is what you are doing today. So if you’re a big NBA star like Houston’s James Harden (whose giant beard would probably get shaved off in a Chinese concentration camp faster than a Zion Williamson dunk), what you do is look in the camera and apologize profusely for your boss’ intemperate support for democracy and add, “You know, we love China.” Because it turns out driving the lane against 7-foot centers takes a lot less courage than speaking up for human rights.
Yet, in a sense James Harden is also all of us. Over the last 30 years, America and China have gotten so tangled up with each other over trade and money that it’s virtually impossible for an average citizen to really protest the barbarism of China’s soulless dictators without moving to a cabin in northern Idaho and leaving the grid. When Beijing’s rulers butchered their own people in Tienanmen Square in 1989, we chose to do nothing and instead pretended we were doing something postive by increasing our business ties — convinced that exposure to the joy of capitalism would also make China go democratic. Instead, as Eric Levitz pointed out in a sharp essay this week in New York magazine, greed and lust for China’s vast market has infected America and the West with its authoritarianism.
In 2019, whether you live in Hong Kong or Kyiv or Philadelphia, your value as a citizen is only equal to your value as a consumer. That’s partly because corporate graft has weakened our governments to such an ineffective state that Big Business is making the rules, and because corporations are not people — no matter how many times the corrupted U.S. Supreme Court says otherwise — their only moral rule is to suck profits like a vampire squid.
With corporations acting as our real governors, there’s been a lot of talk in recent years about something called “woke capitalism,” when vast multinational corporations bond with their customers over a shared love for the greater social good that transcends our shattered politics.
But do you really think Dick’s Sporting Goods would have banned assault rifles if it didn’t expect upscale “soccer moms” to flood its stores for gym socks as a reward, or that Nike would have hired Colin Kaepernick as pitchman if he wouldn’t sell millions of sneakers to the young and urban? Maybe we should thank the NBA for showing us that there’s no such thing as “woke capitalism” — just capitalism, and the warped 21st century strain of it is slowly strangling our souls.