You could not find a better example of China and America talking past each other than the great basketball flap of 2019. You will remember that the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted support for the demonstrators of Hong Kong. China’s fury was felt instantaneously, threatening the future of the National Basketball Association’s business in China, where the sport is immensely popular.
Both sides immediately mounted their high horses as the spat brought two sacred principals into conflict. On the American side, freedom of expression is an ironclad right consecrated in the American Constitution. The first of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights was formally adopted in 1791. “Congress shall make no law” abridging the freedom of speech, it states. It is a bedrock principle of American democracy, with antecedents stretching back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and the 1689 English bill of rights. Nothing can get the American fur to rise more quickly than an assault on freedom of expression. If a basketball boss wants to express himself by standing up for Hong Kong demonstrators, that’s his sacred right.
Yet from China’s point of view, territorial integrity is the lodestar of national aspiration. China was once the world’s richest and most powerful country, but the 19th century saw it being torn apart by imperialist powers. The British, having grown rich by selling opium to the Chinese against the wishes of the Chinese government, fought wars to continue doing so, taking Hong Kong as a crown colony in 1842. The French, the Russians, the Germans, and the Japanese were not far behind. The Americans, having come late to imperialism, demanded an “open door policy,” which meant that America was free to exploit China equally with the Europeans and the Japanese. China shriveled under the century of exploitation with unequal treaties and extra-territoriality, meaning that foreigners controlled huge swaths of China even while technically observing Chinese sovereignty. Foreign gunboats steamed along the great river arteries of China, enforcing their will. Foreign-controlled railways intruded even further into China’s bloodstream.
Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China, said a century ago, “We are being crushed by the economic strength of the powers to a greater degree than if we were a full colony. China is not a colony of one nation but of all, and we are not the slaves of one nation but of all.” On another occasion, he compared China to a huge “piece of meat” ready to be eaten by “ravenous” foreign tigers.”
Territorial integrity was not restored to China until after Mao Zedong took power, and, according to China, will not be complete until Taiwan returns to the fold.
The perfect person to try to resolve the basketball flap, with a foot in each camp, was Taiwan-born Joseph Tsai, the Yale-educated cofounder of Alibaba and new owner of the Brooklyn Nets. In a Facebook posting, Tsai tried to explain the Chinese point of view: “Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens of China. The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by Western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.”
An article in The New York Times immediately complained that “Nets Owner Joe Tsai Didn’t Seem Political. Until Now,” saying that Tsai had referred to the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong as a “separatist movement.”
Alas, although the Hong Kong demonstrations began as a response to China’s whittling away at Hong Kong’s rights under “one country, two systems” — a doctrine that was supposed to last until 2047 — separatist elements have emerged among the demonstrators waving American and British flags. This has enraged mainland Chinese.
Americans are not going to give up freedom of expression, and the Chinese are not going to give up their abhorrence of anything that might infringe on their territorial integrity. It would behoove both countries, however, to use a little forbearance, understanding, and respect when it comes to their respective third-rail issues. For the fate of the world depends on China and the United States coming to a modus vivendi.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”