China has its 1.4 billion people, most of them potential consumers. Western businesspeople have been making the goo-goo eyes at this potentially awesome market for decades.
The National Basketball Association is no exception, and it just so happens that the NBA has been able to fill a void. Unlike so much of the world, China is not engrossed in soccer. There was no great national team sport fixation. But that has changed. An estimated 300 million people play basketball in China. There are some 200 NBA stores in the country. TV games are enormously popular. It has gotten to the point where more people are watching the NBA in China than in the United States.
Or were, pre-tweet.
Oh, and that’s the one funny thing about the contretemps featuring the Chinese government and the NBA. Daryl Morey’s infamous tweet wasn’t even seen by the masses in China; Twitter is typically blocked there. But I guess you know that the word got around. The government made sure of that.
The real question is this: Did the NBA know what it was doing by plunging head-first into a major business alliance with China? Or was it being naive when it assumed a rupture such as this was never going to happen? After all, we are talking about China, as in Communist China, a country in the firm control of its most powerful leader since Chairman Mao himself.
When Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, tweeted his support for the protesters in Hong Kong, he was exercising a right we Americans take for granted. He was surely aware enough to know his thoughts would not be welcomed in China. But he could not possibly have imagined that one seemingly innocent tweet would have such enormous ramifications.
One person who does know what it’s all about, and who might have explained to Mr. Morey why his tweet might not have been such an expedient idea, is Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai. Mr. Tsai is the Taiwanese-born multibillionaire co-founder of Alibaba, the multinational conglomerate holding company whose US “market cap” was pegged at $352 billion as of December 2018. What Morey did was stumble into a highly sensitive area of Chinese sensibility that far transcends the current uproar in Hong Kong.
And he did so at precisely the wrong moment in history. How was Morey supposed to know that he had ticked off the Chinese during the annual Golden Week holiday?
We’ll get to that in a minute. Let Tsai outline the issue, as the Chinese see it.
In a Facebook post this past week, Tsai had this to say: “The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the 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 is non-negotiable.”
He went on to say that this topic is a “third rail” with the Chinese. He traces the sensitivity to the two Opium Wars of the 19th century, when a weak China was unable to defend itself, as well as the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Hong Kong became a British “Crown Colony” in 1842. When the great “Handover” back to China took place in 1997, England was then out of the picture, but Hong Kong was granted, shall we say, privileges not given to mainland people for the next 50 years. Hong Kong has since become a major international financial and commercial player, and people have begun to identify themselves as Hong Kongers, and not Chinese. The government resents this mightily. I am asking you to imagine if Manhattan — an island, remember — was not officially part of the US but under the auspices of a foreign country such as, well, China. Think about that. Now, please understand me. I am simply trying to explain the Chinese point of view, not defend it. Taiwan is an equally sensitive topic.
Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 vowing to attack and eliminate rampant corruption. Many once-prominent heads have rolled. He has made himself into an immensely powerful and, frankly, quite popular figure. He will allow you to make your money, and there is only one important rule. Do. Not. Challenge. The. Government.
He is ruthless, and here I quote Wikipedia: “His tenure has also seen a significant increase of censorship and mass surveillance, significant deterioration in human rights, the return to a cult of personality, and the removal of term limits for president in 2018.”
He is persecuting the Uighurs, a Muslim minority living mostly in the far western province of Xinjiang, herding them into “re-education camps.” The Tibet takeover is a known tragedy. He is not a Nice Guy.
OK, Golden Week history. This is an annual celebration of the 1949 Communist takeover of the country. It is normally pretty festive and often a time for vacations. But this year President Xi has made into something far bigger. This is the 70th anniversary of the Communist regime and he has galvanized and rallied the country. He is playing the patriotism card, big time. The Hong Kong problem has the government roiled. It has positioned the protesters as “separatists” who cannot be tolerated. President Xi doesn’t want to hear about it from any outsiders, be they NBA general managers or baristas at Starbucks.
The NBA has, of course, been blinded by the money. Who wouldn’t be? But was getting in bed with China risky to begin with? This time the offending tweet had to do with Hong Kong. Next time it could be “Free Tibet.” Or “Long Live Taiwan.” Or “Hug A Uighur.”
Everything was great for the NBA until the real world got in the way.
Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.