For the many millions around the world who love basketball, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers is a legend, who has done an excellent job promoting the game, and at the same time focusing attention on social issues in the US.
That is why it is so amazing that James made such an incredibly insensitive mistake last week by criticizing Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for tweeting on Oct. 4 to “Fight for Freedom, Stand for Hong Kong.”
Morey was, of course, right in his support for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, but soon after his tweet, things started to go wrong: Chinese Central Television immediately canceled a number of planned NBA pre-season games in China — threatening the NBA’s lucrative broadcasting income from those games — while Chinese companies such as smartphone brand Vivo and Anta Sports Shoes withdrew their sponsorship.
The NBA, through its commissioner Adam Silver, attempted damage control: In an initial statement, he defended Morey’s right to free speech, while at the same time, he tried to pacify the Chinese side by apologizing.
It did not help: The Chinese side continued to threaten to cancel broadcasts of all NBA games.
That is where LeBron James came in. After returning from playing some exhibition games in China, James seemingly sided with the repressive Communist regime by attacking Daryl Morey’s tweet as “misinformed” and “not educated” on the Hong Kong situation. He added, for good form, that this was a “very delicate, a very sensitive situation.”
Yes, Mr James, situations where people are deprived of their freedom and their rights are indeed “delicate and sensitive” — particularly for those who are being repressed. That is why it is essential that those who still enjoy freedom and democracy stand up for those universal rights, and do not let themselves be bamboozled into siding with the repressors.
PROFITS OR PRINCIPLES?
The problem is, of course, not just James himself: It is the whole of the NBA, and so many other businesses and corporations that have gotten themselves dependent on a repressive regime in Beijing that does not allow freedom of expression.
The NBA episode is a stark reminder to Western companies that they have to stand up for universal principles and values. If they succumb to the orchestrated pressure emanating from Beijing, whether it is on Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan or Taiwan, then they undermine precious freedom and democracy around the world, and present an invitation on a platter to the repressive rulers in Beijing to do this time and again.
The best thing that came out of this whole affair is the response to James by Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter — himself a Turkish dissident who has been exiled by his country’s authoritarian government, led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who tweeted on Oct. 14: “Haven’t seen or talked to my family 5 years, Jailed my dad, My siblings can’t find jobs, Revoked my passport, International arrest warrant, My family can’t leave the country, Got Death Threats every day, Got attacked, harassed, Tried to kidnap me in Indonesia, FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”
Go Houston Rockets, go Boston Celtics!
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat and teaches the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Virginia. From 1980 through 2016 he served as editor of the Taiwan Communique.
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