SELLING OUT FREEDOM
I was scanning the news on my phone when the reality struck me. The next cold war has already begun. But this one is different, harder to detect, because it’s being waged with money not guns and the adversary is the Chinese Communist Party.
What organization inadvertently shined a light on this new cold war? Unexpectedly, it was the National Basketball Association.
On October 4, the Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey tweeted, ‘FIGHT FOR FREEDOM. STAND WITH HONG KONG.’ I was happy to see this. All fall I have been saddened by how little moral support these brave pro-democracy protesters have received from leaders in the United States. The protesters most aggressive demand for Hong Kong? They want to be able to elect their leaders – which the Chinese Communist Party does not allow (In China the Party picks your leaders). The very fact that they need masks to protest tells you everything you need to know about the Chinese government. You don’t need a mask in America to disagree with your government.
So why have they not received more encouragement? The answer, it turns out, is money.
The Chinese government forcefully objected to Mr. Morey’s tweet and called upon its economic engine to respond. Pre-season games were pulled from Chinese television and Chinese corporations threatened to stop sponsoring teams, products affiliated with the league, and the league itself. The Communist Party, by virtue of its tight grip on Chinese society, holds de-facto control of the media and the business sector in the country. Chinese companies that defy the party pay a heavy economic toll. Chinese business leaders who defy the communist party do so at great peril. Everyone within the system must follow the party or pay the price. In this way, the Chinese government can tacitly direct Chinese firms to withhold support from any entity that dares speak out against the interests of the Party. Because China is a big economic engine, this power is significant–and America–as exemplified by the timid response of the NBA–is falling prey to it.
In the days that followed, the NBA has been walking away from Mr. Morey’s pro-freedom statement. Mr. Morey took down his tweet and others all but apologized. The most NBA Commissioner Adam Silver would say, is that each individual within the NBA family was free to speak their own mind. The opportunity existed for the NBA to say that of course it was an advocate of freedom in Hong Kong (and everywhere) – but the league wouldn’t make that commitment. The financial benefits of the Chinese market are too lucrative. This is also true for many of the league’s biggest stars, like LeBron James. Players have contracts with giant companies like Nike. For many players, their personal brand in China is worth millions of dollars. This is the new cold war. The battle is over ideas (or the restriction of them) and the new weapon is money.
In this hidden economic war, global brands (like the NBA and Nike) are highly reluctant to provide appropriate social leadership in places like China. They can only provide social leadership where diversity of thought is tolerated. For example, Nike can run commercials supporting Colin Kaepernick (which is great), the former NFL star who has been out of a NFL job since taking a knee during the pre-game national anthem. But, Nike cannot run commercials championing the young freedom fighters in Hong Kong. Why? America tolerates dissent–the Chinese Communist party does not. If Colin Kaepernick had taken a knee in China he would likely be in jail.
This is how a company, an industry, or an entire nation sells its soul without realizing that a transaction actually occurred. If America doesn’t stand for freedom–then what do we stand for? If freedom fighters around the world don’t have an advocate in America–who will advocate for them? If China’s economic market is more important to us than the premise of freedom for all, then who as a country have we become? I am not talking about invading China for the Hong Kong freedom protesters. Nor am I even talking about sending them face masks and flair guns. I am simply talking about our willingness to make the most fundamental of commitments. We favor freedom. We believe every human has the right to be free.
As a nation, our hand is going to continue to be forced on this issue and the future of the world will tip on our choices. Will we choose money or freedom? Right now it doesn’t look good.
It’s important to be precise with words on this subject. China itself is a beautiful place filled with amazing human beings. Even the Chinese Communist Party is filled with people capable of doing great good. This issue at hand is two-fold. The first concern is the freedom opposing grip on leadership that the Chinese Communist Party choses to exercise over their people. Second is the willingness of some American companies (like the NBA and their players) to stand quiet on freedom in order to maximize their financial gains in Chinese markets.
The Chinese Communist Party (and other controlling regimes) cannot survive freedom. If their country had free choice, their government would be dismantled and despite their propaganda, they know it. China’s Communist Party can only rule in the absence of freedom. As a result, they will defend the absence of freedom at all costs. And they will win that battle if the freedom of others is for sale in America.