The Chinese folk saying “lift a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet” (搬石頭砸自己的腳) or its English equivalent —“to shoot oneself in the foot” — perfectly describes the self-defeating inclinations of dictatorship. Nothing exemplifies such inclinations as much as China’s efforts to bully the US’ National Basketball Association (NBA).
The row began when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted (and quickly deleted) support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The response was swift. China’s government blacklisted the Rockets, ordered the state-run TV network to cancel broadcasts of two NBA pre-season matches and instructed Chinese companies to suspend their sponsorships and licensing agreements with the NBA.
As the NBA’s largest international market, China expected the league to scurry back into line, apologize for offending the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and pledge never to repeat the mistake. Initially, the NBA did just that.
“We feel greatly disappointed at [Morey’s] inappropriate speech, which is regrettable,” the league said in a statement. “We take respecting Chinese history and culture as a serious matter.”
However, that attempt to kowtow to China sparked outrage among US lawmakers, who accused the NBA of choosing money over human rights.
“No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Twitter.
The NBA threw Morey “under the bus” to protect their market access, US Senator Marco Rubio said, calling the move “disgusting.”
Under pressure, NBA commissioner Adam Silver then seemed to shift the league’s position. In an interview with a Japanese news outlet, he said: “Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
In the end, it was China that had to back down. The authorities allowed a previously scheduled NBA exhibition game to be played in Shanghai — to the cheers of thousands of Chinese fans — and ordered the state media to play down the controversy. The lesson should be clear: Bullying is a surefire way to lose friends and make enemies in the West.
China might be a lucrative market for the NBA, which has reaped billions of dollars in revenue through broadcasting and merchandise licensing deals in the country, but the NBA is also a very valuable friend to China. Its relationship with the league is one of the great successes in its cultural and commercial relations with the US and a powerful example of Sino-American “sports diplomacy.”
Such diplomacy has a storied history in US-China relations. During the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, US player Glenn Cowan boarded a shuttle bus with the Chinese national team. Rather than avoid him, as the Chinese team had been instructed to do, its top player, Zhuang Zedong (莊則棟), initiated a conversation with the American (through an interpreter). The two players even exchanged gifts — an act of goodwill that garnered significant positive media attention.
Recognizing the diplomatic opportunity, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) invited the US team to an all-expenses-paid visit to China. The heavily documented trip — which included tours of important sites, exhibition table tennis matches and even an audience with then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) — opened the way for the two governments to begin back-channel communications and, eventually, to normalize bilateral relations.
Mao and then-US president Richard Nixon did not squander the opportunity that sports diplomacy presented. However, by picking a fight with the NBA, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) government could well have. At a time when Sino-American relations are in freefall, this is the last thing China needs.
To some extent, China’s response was probably a hubris-induced miscalculation. The government has effortlessly bullied some of the world’s largest and best-known companies into submission after they offended its delicate political sensitivities. (Apple and Marriott International listed Taiwan and Chinese territories, such as Hong Kong, as separate nations; Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, did not prohibit its employees from participating in pro-democracy protests.)
China has used similar tactics to pressure Western governments into bending to its will. For example, it cut off high-level exchanges and curtailed business dealings with France, Germany and the UK when they hosted the Dalai Lama.
Similarly, after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) in 2010, China suspended salmon imports from Norway (although the Norwegian government has no influence over the Nobel committee’s decision). China ended up getting its way in nearly all of these showdowns, with Western actors expressing remorse and seeking to regain China’s favor.
However, hubris is only part of the story. Chinese officials have strong incentives to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, even at the expense of strategic objectives. The resulting modus operandi called ning zuo wu you (寧左勿右), which loosely translates to “rather left than right,” influences most official calculations. The decision to bully the NBA was more than likely taken by a party apparatchik eager to curry favor with CCP superiors.
With intimidation hardwired into the Chinese system, such self-defeating behavior is likely to continue — and cost the CCP dearly. The more friends China turns into enemies, whether out of hubris or instinct, the easier it will be for the US to assemble a broad coalition to contain Beijing’s power and ambitions. At that point, the Chinese bully’s favorite tactic for defending its interests will become even less effective.
Pei Minxin is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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