Hoops and Hypocrisy: How a Single Tweet Set Off a Geopolitical Firestorm
I’m old enough to remember the announcement in 2009 when an up-and-coming social media company called Facebook (no longer The Facebook) decided to introduce 6 relationship statuses as a way for people to share their current romantic situation with the world. Five of the statuses were self-explanatory: single, in a relationship, in an open relationship, engaged, and married were all par for the course. However, there emerged a sixth relationship option that had many of us millennials puzzled: it’s complicated.
Now, the idea behind “it’s complicated” was fairly straight forward. Simply put, it was two people in a relationship that defied traditional labels. Maybe it was in the early staging of dating when they weren’t “official” yet. Maybe it was two people in an open relationship who maybe wanted to make it exclusive. Maybe it was two married people in the process of divorce. Whatever the reason may be, it was definitely an awkward thing to announce to the world via social media. In fact, it quickly became a joke among my peer group if we were out in mixed company and someone said something wrong to his or her significant other than this person was rapidly in danger of achieving “it’s complicated status” by night’s end. The subtext to this cheerful banter was that nobody wanted to end up in such a nebulous relationship, as the distinction came with an obviously negative connotation.
Flash forward ten years and relationships are still complicated. Not only romantic relationships but also ones involving geopolitics. Here, in the year 2019, the United States of America unquestionably has some “complicated” relationships with other countries. Much of it has to do with us feeling the need to maintain our status as the world’s sole remaining superpower, so what we have time and time again is a government willing to compromise to ensure that we keep that status for the foreseeable future. The United States consistently turns a blind eye to civil rights abuses from countries through which we need access to trade and certain markets. The United States consistently turns a blind eye to countries supporting certain forms of terrorism due to our business interests, especially those in the Middle East. And the United States consistently turns a blind eye to countries repressing its indigenous, LGBT, and non-White populations because we ourselves are just as guilty for treating those people the exact same way here in our country.
Perhaps nowhere in 2019 is there a more curious, complicated case than with the United States and China. China today is seen as a threat to America’s superiority as it has had the largest economic growth of any country over the past 70 years. Combined with a ruling Communist Party, the antithesis of American democracy, and it is apparent how the Chinese economic explosion threatens the United States’ long-seated disdain and dismissal of the effectiveness of the communist system. President Barack Obama saw the need to take advantage of this growth but his forward-thinking Transpacific Partnership trade agreement was torpedoed by both Republicans and the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party, leading to a missed opportunity for a generation or more. Combined with Donald Trump’s asinine trade war and it’s clear that China does not need full United States participation to continue its economic growth moving forward.
But the United States most certainly needs China, which is owed more than any other foreign nation. Currently, the American debt to China is $1.1 trillion, which is 27% of all foreign debt. Owning U.S. Treasury notes helps China’s economy grow so it’s not a simple act of generosity on their part. Rather, it is a way to ensure that Chinese currency, the yuan, stays weak relative to the dollar. Combining that debt with the fact that China is the United States’ largest trading partner, with annual trade worth $663 billion, and one can see just how important China has become for the United States. Not only are we saturated by MADE IN CHINA products but having China has a foreign market has become essential for many industries, including, yes, our soybean farmers right here in the United States. Thanks to Donald Trump’s ludicrous trade war with China, America soybean farmers lost their fourth-biggest market, creating the need for two separate rounds of bailouts costing $28 billion, more than twice what President Obama provided the American auto industry in 2009. Despite what you might hear, trade wars are not easy to win, especially when your trading partner is much, much smarter than you are.
But in addition to this complicated economic relationship with China, the United States also has a complicated cultural relationship with China. Yes, communism is bad. Just ask the Uyghurs how China treats its ethnic minorities. But at the same time, there exists a country of 1.4 billion people who may like the same stuff we do! And if they like the same stuff, the might want to buy that stuff! Americans are many things, if not opportunistic, so they would be foolish to not pursue a country whose population is 5 times that of our own. If only America had some form of entertainment that could transcend geopolitical arenas and could somehow be maximized for profit.
Enter the National Basketball Association, or NBA. The NBA has been steadily lagging behind the National Football League (NFL) for the last two decades when it comes to annual viewership. Even with a dip in 2017, the NFL consistently earns the most viewers with its annual championship game, the Super Bowl, consistently being the top-rated sporting event of the year, often receiving over 100 million viewers. Knowing that the NFL reigns supreme domestically, the NBA has begun exploring international options as a way to introduce the sport to new markets. Whereas there is no Olympics for football, basketball is a game that has an international connection with athletes from 6 continents competing at both world championships and the Olympics. Combined with the fact that since 1992 the United States has allowed professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics and the sports biggest stars now have the chance to spread their brand, and more importantly the game itself, to all corners of the globe.
One of those corners the game reached was China. In 2002, the world was introduced to a 7’6” center named Yao Ming, who was the first overall pick in that year’s draft to the Houston Rockets. Almost overnight, a country of over a billion people was suddenly interested in this sports ball game and the NBA knew it now had a completely untapped market ready to explore. Yao jerseys flew off the shelves like hotcakes and suddenly Houston became every Chinese man or woman’s favorite American city. Yao did not win a championship and was forced to retire in 2011 but he was an immense talent both on and off the court and was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 2016. Although there has not been a player as popular as Mao since he retired, the game remains popular in China, so much so that this year the NBA scheduled 2 preseason games in the country, including one with Mao’s former team, the Houston Rockets. Knowing how popular the Rockets were, surely this would be a huge win for the NBA, right?
Well, not so fast.
You see, our relationship with China is, well, still complicated and it’s largely due to our geopolitical relationship with the country that causes this to happen. This time, a controversy emerged after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protestors on October 4th. The tweet drew immediate backlash from Chinese government officials and Morey immediately deleted the tweet and offered an apology, which read:
Despite this full walk back, Morey’s original tweet and subsequent apology shot off a firestorm both in China and in the United States. Here at home, NBA commissioner Adam Silver found himself in the unenviable position of trying to advocate for Morey’s free speech while simultaneously trying to make amends with our offended geopolitical frenemies. Somehow, Adam Silver’s tightrope walk managed to unite both Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke among others as there was widespread bipartisan condemnation of Silver for seemingly selling out free speech for the almighty dollar. Of course, by not being fully in China’s corner, the Chinese struck back by announcing that their main television network, CCTV, would not broadcast any additional NBA preseason games and that they would “immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA.” Thanks to merchandise and a $1.5 billion TV deal, the NBA currently gets over $4 billion annually from China, or roughly $133 million per team. A price for freedom of speech has now been monetized and it’s up to Adam Silver and the National Basketball Association to see if that price is worth more than $4 billion.
A question that is most complicated, indeed.
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