NBA-China outrage reveals how free speech is being crushed by Washington’s new Cold War

Contrary to its claim to universally protect free expression, the NBA has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to sanction its players’ speech, particularly where it crosses lines with Washington’s anti-China agenda. 

By Ajit Singh

Tensions between the United States and China have boiled over yet again in recent weeks, with the latest dispute being set off by one of the rare sources of unity between the two countries: basketball.

Ignited by a now-deleted tweet, in which a high-ranking executive of the National Basketball Association (NBA) expressed support for protest movement in Hong Kong, the issue has ballooned into an ideological confrontation between Washington and Beijing over charged issues such as free speech, censorship, and national sovereignty. 

In the U.S., the story has inspired vociferous condemnation China, with Washington and the corporate media presenting the story uniformly in terms of defending American “free speech” against Chinese “censorship”.

However, the denunciation and silencing of any dissent from this narrative, even by NBA icon LeBron James, reveals that political expression is being muzzled in the U.S. not by foreign powers, but by Washington in pursuit of its new Cold War.

Background to the NBA’s Cold War freakout

On October 4th, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted a photo which read “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”. The tweet was made during the NBA’s annual pre-season pilgrimage to China for exhibition games, with numerous NBA staff and players in the country for exhibition games in the aftermath of Morey’s comments.

The Chinese response to Morey’s remarks on the sensitive issue was swift, with the tweet drawing public outrage from a population that includes 500 million NBA fans, along with an official condemnation by the Chinese Consulate-General in Houston, which expressed its “strong dissatisfaction”.

Numerous Chinese partners of the NBA suspended ties with the league, including the Chinese Basketball Association, which is headed by former Hall-of-Fame player for the Houston Rockets Yao Ming, broadcasters Tencent and the state-owned China Central Televison (CCTV).

The NBA quickly released a statement acknowledging that Morey’s comments “offended many of our friends and fans in China” and that while the NBA supports its employees “sharing their views on matters important to them”, Morey’s views did not represent the league.

However, the NBA’s attempt to defuse tensions over the issue instead generated a new wave of backlash, now coming from the U.S. media and political establishment. Headline after headline accused the NBA of “bowing to China” as the issue became a launching point to push Washington’s anti-China agenda and new Cold War strategy.

The hysteria has brought together U.S. lawmakers from across the political spectrum, with President Trump criticizing members of the NBA for “pandering to China”, Vice President Pence accusing the NBA of acting “like a wholly owned subsidiary of [China’s] authoritarian regime”, and Hillary Clinton stating “[e]very American has the right to voice their support for democracy and human rights for Hong Kong. Full stop.”

In a more revealing instance of bipartisan consensus on the issue, figures such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton united to co-sign a belligerent letter denouncing the NBA and Chinese government.

The letter condemns the NBA as “outrageous” for “cav[ing] to the Chinese government” and its “betrayal of fundamental American values”, along with slamming the “Chinese Communist Party [for] using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans in the United States.”

Eschewing any semblance of diplomacy, the letter urges the NBA and other U.S. corporations to escalate hostilities and “aggressively confront” the “intimidation campaign” of China’s “repressive single party government”. Going beyond the issue of “free speech”, the letter suggested that the NBA should overtly support the protest movement in Hong Kong as “we hope to see Americans standing up and speaking out in defense of the rights of the people of Hong Kong” to counter the Chinese “government’s propaganda”.

Facing mounting pressure, NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a second statement, appealing to Washington, clarifying that “[a]s an American-based basketball league” the NBA values “freedom of expression”, and that “the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say”.

Silver has increasingly adopted rhetoric in line with Washington, foregrounding notions that the league is defending free speech and American values against Chinese repression.

At the TIME 100 Health Summit on October 17th, Silver stated that he initially “was trying too hard to be a diplomat” in relation to China, and affirmed that as “an American business”, “American values … travel with us wherever we go. And one of those values is free expression. We wanted to make sure that everyone understood we were supporting free expression.”

Going further, Silver alleged that he was asked by the Chinese government to fire Morey and that the NBA refused to give in to these demands.

The Chinese foreign ministry has denied the allegation stating, on October 18th, that Beijing never made such a demand. A commentary by state broadcaster CCTV argues that in order “to please some American politicians, Silver has fabricated lies out of nothing and has sought to paint China unforgiving.”

It is uncertain at this point what long-term impact this affair will have on relations between the NBA and China. In the U.S., the saga has been a lightning rod, attracting vociferous criticism of China, with the story being presented almost uniformly in terms of Chinese censorship of American “free speech”, the need to support “democracy and freedom” in Hong Kong, and the growing, global reach of “Chinese tyranny”.

There are, however, a number of important factors which are being left out of this narrative, which this article will explore.

The dark side of the Hong Kong protest movement

While protests in Hong Kong have been glorified by the West as a progressive struggle for “freedom and democracy”, mainstream representations of the movement have sanitized many of its problematic aspects.

As The Grayzone has previously reported, the movement is in fact gripped by xenophobia, nativism, and colonial apologism, and increasingly prone to riots, mob violence, and hate crimes.

The movement has received significant support from Washington, which seeks to embolden separatist elements in the former British colony and ratchet pressure on Beijing as part of its “containment strategy” against China.

While the U.S. establishment dismisses notions that Washington backs the Hong Kong protests as a product of Chinese “paranoia”, there appears to be strong evidence to support the view. In the last year alone, numerous Hong Kong opposition groups have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. regime-change outfit the National Endowment of Democracy (NED).

Extensive meetings and coordination have taken place between U.S. politicians and leaders of the Hong Kong protests. These have included meetings with U.S. government representative Julie Eadeh, a diplomat with the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, along with politicians who have travelled to the city such as Senator Ted Cruz.

Hong Kong protestors have asked President Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong, with opposition leaders traveling to Washington to meet with the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and lobby Congress to take action against China.

Testifying on Capitol Hill, movement leaders including Joshua Wong and Denise Ho have urged U.S. lawmakers to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Purporting to “protect” Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy, the bill in fact increases the city’s subordination to Washington’s foreign policy agenda, creating new legal justifications for the U.S. to impose sanctions on China and requiring the U.S. government to closely scrutinize whether Hong Kong “enforce[s] sanctions imposed by the United States” against North Korea, Iran and any other countries that Washington deems “present a threat to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”

Such brazen acts of meddling makes clear that beneath Washington’s professed concern for “human rights”, the U.S. in fact aims to manipulate and stoke unrest in Hong Kong to advance its new Cold War strategy against China, alongside its military “pivot” to Asia and “trade war.”

The NBA’s history of free speech crackdowns

With this much needed context, it is clear to see why Morey’s tweet about this sensitive issue has caused the outcry that it has in China. Further, Morey’s tweet was not merely an expression of support for the protests in Hong Kong, instead he shared the logo of an organization which calls for foreign intervention and economic aggression against China.

The organization, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”, believes that the UK, as former colonial rulers of Hong Kong, “has a unique right and responsibility” to the city and explicitly calls on right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to impose economic sanctions on China.

While the NBA is presenting itself as brave defenders of freedom of expression against China, history demonstrates otherwise. Like the NFL’s blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his anthem protest and criticism of U.S. racism and police brutality, the NBA has also suppressed the speech of players who have openly expressed criticisms of the U.S.

In 1992, during the Chicago Bulls visit to the White House after winning the NBA Championship, then-Bulls player Craig Hodges delivered a letter to then-President George H. W. Bush, criticizing the racist policies of his administration. Hodges, who was 32 at the time and had just come off two seasons playing for championship teams, would never receive another contract or even an invitation to try out for an NBA team.

Similarly, the NBA suspended and eventually shunned from the league Mahmoud-Abdul Rauf, then a young NBA star, for protesting the U.S. flag national anthem as a global symbol of “tyranny and oppression” in response to the first Iraq War.

The NBA continues to demonstrate its willingness to sanction speech, but generally in a more progressive direction given the stronger position NBA players have fought for and attained. In 2014, the league implemented a life-time ban of long-time owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, after a tape was leaked in which he made extensive anti-black comments. While the league had turned a blind eye to Sterling’s well-known racism and sexism for several decades, it was forced to act in the face of a potential boycott by its majority black players, along with outraged fans.

Thus, contrary to its claim to universally protect free expression, the NBA has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to sanction speech, particularly where it crosses lines with Washington’s political agenda, and, less often, in response to pressure from players and consumers.

As concerns China, it seems that the issue is not a matter of defending “free speech”, but that the NBA has felt pressured to toe Washington’s agenda, and, like all U.S. corporations, does not view the sovereignty of countries of the global South as a sufficient reason to sanction Morey’s speech.

The silencing of NBA stars by Washington’s New Cold War

The NBA-China saga has revealed the limits to U.S. conceptions of free speech. When pressed by the media to comment, NBA players and coaches are either forced to side with Washington or, as was witnessed with Democratic Presidential Candidate Tulsi Gabbard, be accused of “siding with the enemy” and being labeled a traitor. Not even one of the world’s most popular athletes has been able to escape the toxicity of the new Cold War culture consuming the US.

Asked by reporters to weigh in on the controversy, NBA superstar LeBron James stated that he felt Morey “wasn’t educated about the situation at hand” when commenting on Hong Kong and that he did “not believe there was any consideration [by Morey] for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet.”

James added that while he believed Americans have freedom of speech, they should exercise it with caution and “be careful what we tweet”, especially when it comes to “very delicate [and] very sensitive” political situations: “Yes, we have freedom of speech but there can be a lot of negatives that come with that as well… Sometimes social media is not always the proper way to go about things as well.”

Despite the decidedly mild nature of his comments, James was immediately and strongly denounced by the U.S. establishment. Corporate media outlets have slammed James for “bend[ing] the knee” and “capitulation”, giving China “exactly what it wants”, and heavily circulated images on social media have mocked James as being a member of the Communist Party of China.

A new t-shirt released by Barstool Sports depicting LeBron James as Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.

James was blasted by Republican Senators Rick Scott for “kowtowing to Communist China”, Ben Sasse for “parroting Communist propaganda”, and Ted Cruz for “kissing up to Chinese communists and tyrants and apologizing for murderers”.

The barrage of criticism has effectively silenced James, who has now told reporters that he “won’t talk about [China] again”. Similar to how James was infamously told to “shut up and dribble” when speaking out against racism and criticizing President Trump, the NBA star has once again been told to keep his mouth shut for not criticizing Washington’s Official Enemy, China.

For all their bluster about Chinese censorship, the treatment of James makes it clear that in the U.S. “free speech” is reserved only for those who will support Washington’s political agenda.

The double standards of “free speech” in the U.S. have not gone unnoticed, with several NBA players pointing out that they are discouraged from expressing their beliefs on domestic political issues in the U.S. but pressured to support Washington’s foreign policy interests with respect to countries like China.

Speaking out against the criticism James has received, veteran forward Andre Iguodala stated, “[t]he thing that bothered me the most was when we make our statements about being home, about being American and issues we have in America, it’s like, ‘Shut up and dribble.’

“It’s interesting in this situation with China, they’re shoving a camera in our face and be like, ‘No you can’t say no comment we need you to speak on this,'” Iguodala continued. “They ready to attack LeBron for making a statement because they don’t like his statement, they feel like he should have took another stance. But when he’s home and he makes a stance about… and it’s like, ‘No this is not your place to make that statement.’ That was just mind-blowing. That’s what bothered me the most.”

Retired NBA player Etan Thomas has expressed similar criticisms of the “conservative backlash” against James as being hypocritical. Thomas wrote in The Guardian:

“conservative critics … who denigrate athletes for speaking up against the human rights violations happening on American streets and do the same when they don’t for issues halfway around the world, are trading in the very double standard they allege. These people only care about democracy and freedom of speech and allowing athletes to use their platforms to speak about injustice when the position taken is convenient for their agendas. If it’s not, they want athletes to shut up and dribble. And that is the essence of hypocrisy.”

Finally, retired NBA player David West tweeted that the pushback against James is an attempt to pressure him to echo Washington’s line on China:

As Washington’s new Cold War against China heats up, it is restricting the space for free expression and alternative viewpoints from the U.S. ruling class on issues of war and peace.

The pressure bearing down on the powerful organizations and individuals such as the NBA and LeBron James is a disturbing sign for anyone who wish to challenge the political consensus in Washington.

It is, thus, all the more important that progressives resist the emerging Cold War hysteria and defend the few prominent voices willing to defy Washington’s militaristic line.