On Oct. 8, Sixers fan Sam Wachs was ejected from an exhibition game between the 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong Lions for holding a sign that said, “Free Hong Kong” and chanting the phrase. The Sixers released a statement stating that Wachs was removed for “disruption of the fan experience” after “multiple complaints from guests and verbal confrontations with others in attendance.”
Notwithstanding the (unfair) reputation of Philadelphia sports fandom, fan ejections from sporting events occur regularly and generally do not make national — or international — news. But Wachs’ ejection came just four days after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey launched a global controversy by tweeting his support for the Hong Kong protesters.
A simple tweet has caused a number of Chinese companies to sever their relationships with the National Basketball Association (NBA). And the NBA has botched its response by showing deference to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points and its imagined history. CNN reporter Christina Macfarlane was stopped when asking Rockets players about the controversy. The NBA later apologized for this incident.
Since the NBA controversy broke, gaming company Blizzard has faced similar criticism over banning the winner of a tournament for supporting the Hong Kong protesters. It later backtracked to a certain extent, but not before the damage to its credibility was done. Comedy Central’s South Park perfectly timed the release of an episode satirizing these issues.
And just as the public seemed to be moving past the NBA controversy, LeBron James reignited the flames by tweeting Monday: “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet.”
He’s not the first player to become an apologist for the CCP.
The forceful and aggressive way the CCP has reacted to the NBA is nothing new. Its response has become standard protocol for dealing with foreign companies. Companies ranging from airlines and hotels to clothiers have gotten into trouble for classifying Taiwan as a separate country and not a part of the People’s Republic. In May 2018, the Trump administration accused the CCP of engaging in “Orwellian nonsense” that has become “part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.” Despite this and other accusations by the administration, it (and the Trump family) continues to tout and pursue business and trade deals with China.
The power and allure of the vast Chinese markets make companies turn a blind eye to vast human rights violations occurring throughout China. It is common knowledge for those attempting to get a foothold in China not to speak out on certain political issues, lest you face the party’s ire and get shut out — or if you’re a journalist, your visa denied.
Don’t talk about the internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Don’t talk about Taiwan. Don’t talk about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Don’t talk about the Dalai Lama. Don’t talk about the detention of activists and lawyers. And don’t talk about Winnie the Pooh. The list could take up the remaining space of this op-ed.
The CCP’s pressuring of companies has been going on for several years and been reported widely, but none of the stories seemed to stick in the greater American psyche. And it makes sense that Americans wouldn’t rally behind Marriott or Gap when they faced the CCP’s anger. It needed to be something as big as the NBA, and the botched response by such a large organization that is not familiar with the intricacies of Chinese foreign policy behavior.
Americans in Philadelphia and elsewhere are now having the veil lifted. We are becoming aware of how China treats “offensive” behavior in absolute terms.
On Oct. 8, when asked about the NBA controversy, Chinese Foreign Minister Spokesperson Geng Shuang said: “When conducting exchange and cooperation with China, they ought to know the public opinion in our country, otherwise how can such exchange and cooperation go on?” Such an idea is antithetical to the freedoms that the U.S. Constitution grants to Americans. We, especially sports fans, who have opinions will stop at nothing to make them known.
As Americans begin to learn more about China, they are starting to see how the Chinese model of governance does not grant freedoms and protections we take for granted. I can only hope that this October — the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — Americans keep speaking out and show the CCP that we are not afraid.
Thomas J. Shattuck is an Asia Program research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He also is a member of the 2019 class of scholars at the Global Taiwan Institute.