Image Credit: 籃球架 Basketball Hoop/ 體育之形 Sports Forms/ SML.20130221.7D.24070.P1.L1 by See-Ming Lee/Flickr; Licence: CC BY-2.0.

Written by Jonathan Brookfield.

On Friday 4 October 2019, Daryl Morey, General Manager of the Houston Rockets (an American basketball team), tweeted an image that read: ‘Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong’.  Before the day was over, Morey had erased the tweet, but it had already created an international uproar, the implications of which continue to unfold (see tweet timeline below).

This is not the first time actions by parties outside of China have prompted a rebuke from Beijing. In 2010, the Norwegian Nobel Committee – a private committee of five individuals appointed by the Norwegian Parliament – awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo for his long, non-violent struggle for human rights in China. Norwegian salmon exports to China suffered for years after the award and have only recently begun to recover.

In 2016, Lady Gaga’s music was banned in China as a result of her meeting with the Dalai Lama. And not only has Richard Gere been banned from China as a result of his support for the spiritual leader, but his ability to land roles in Hollywood blockbusters has also suffered.

More recently, China threatened dozens of airlines in the US and elsewhere, insisting that they change the way they refer to Taiwan – not just on their websites in China, but globally.  In the end, all 44 global airlines that China asked to scrub references to Taiwan complied.  Moreover, it’s not just airlines that China targets. Companies such as Audi, Zara, Medtronic and the Gap have also faced criticism and apologised.

The United States must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government

Of course, Taiwan – a place that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but is claimed by Beijing as part of its own territory – is often considered a special case, while silence in the face of Chinese bad behaviour is commonplace among multinational companies.

What then is new?

With operations spread across a variety of countries, multinational enterprises are often pretty adept at following the old adage ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans…’ (or, for those coming from a Chinese tradition, 入鄉隨俗).  For such organisations, the real challenge comes when governments issue orders that apply to more than just domestic activities.

In the case of China, what we see now is an increasingly assertive nation that is more and more aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world and is willing to use its commercial clout to reward or sanction foreign individuals and organisations on the basis of behaviour occurring outside of China.

For citizens of some medium-sized and small countries around the world, there is probably a bit of schadenfreude in seeing American companies and even Congressmen subject to Chinese pressure. For those targeted, things are likely a bit less light-hearted. For the world, what is important is that the actions provide an indication of how China sees its strength relative to that of the US, and the undertakings signal a new chapter in international affairs. This is clearly not a world that follows Deng Xiaoping’s adage of 韜光養晦 (keep a low profile and bide one’s time).

Hong Kong, the NBA and China

Interestingly, despite early statements from the owner of the Houston Rockets and the National Basketball Association (NBA), disassociating their organisations from Morey’s comments, Morey was not fired by the Rockets or sanctioned by the national league. In fact, the NBA took a public stance defending the right of people associated with the league to articulate their own opinions. At the same time, however, as an organisation the NBA has chosen to be silent in the face of events now unfolding in Hong Kong.

With economic interests in the United States and China, the NBA faces a real challenge in trying to navigate between the very different views of events unfolding in Hong Kong that can be found in the US and China.  If it is fair to characterise the NBA’s current position as one of organisational silence on the subject of events in Hong Kong combined with a public defence of the right of others to speak out in a personal capacity, then it seems reasonable to consider the merits of such a position.

Defending freedom of expression…

Since Daryl Morey is not an employee of the NBA, there is no way the NBA could fire him directly, even if it wanted to. Of course, given the NBA’s central role in professional basketball, it could, if it so wished, exert significant influence on the Houston Rockets to toe the organisation’s line. It also appears that the NBA could fine or suspend Morey for conduct deemed detrimental to the league, if it so chose.

Given all of the above, the NBA deserves some credit for publicly supporting the rights of individuals associated with it to speak their minds in a personal capacity without the fear of professional sanction. That said, both its permissiveness with respect to those who speak out as well as its own organisational silence in regard to events in Hong Kong are political choices. Neither stance is required by law, and seen in combination, the NBA’s position is not uncontroversial.

…while exercising the freedom to be silent?

Silence is a common choice of business organisations in the face of highly charged political issues, and generally speaking, it is a reasonable one. It is nearly impossible to be well-informed on all issues facing the world.  Moreover, while some radicals may attempt to polarise a situation by arguing that ‘if you’re not with me, you’re against me’, for most, freedom of expression also includes the freedom not to take a stand, and business organisations should not be confused with advocacy groups.

That said, if particular business organisations have, at times, spoken up on political topics – especially those related to human rights – then their silence in other situations does leave them open to charges of hypocrisy.  Inconsistency in support of an organisation’s stated values can, of course, be a winning business strategy – as long as the inconsistency is widely shared by customers and other stakeholders. It should be recognised, however, that value signalling is not the same as virtue signalling.

Value signalling vs. virtue signalling

If values are things that an individual, or potentially a group, believes are important, values may or may not be consistent.  In that sense, they are tribal – markers of identity without necessarily any aspirations to universal applicability. As such, they are relatively robust against charges of hypocrisy. In contrast, virtue demands consistency. It aspires to be something all can agree upon, and it withers in the face of hypocrisy.

A hypocritical response?

So has the NBA been hypocritical in its response to the uproar caused by Morey’s tweet and the situation in Hong Kong? In April 2016, the NBA issued an ultimatum to the state of North Carolina: to change its Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act or see the 2017 All-Star Game, slated to take place in Charlotte, moved to another state.  Months later, the NBA followed through with its threat, ultimately holding the game in New Orleans.

This shows clearly that the NBA is willing to act politically when it feels the need to do so. It would therefore be hypocritical of the NBA to avoid taking a stand on events in Hong Kong by arguing that it is not a political organisation. To its credit, the NBA has not made such an argument. Instead, it has chosen silence, having nothing to say on the events in Hong Kong and offering no explanation of how the association decides whether to comment on or avoid political issues.

So it is possible that the NBA’s position is a hypocritical one. If this is the case, however, the NBA’s approach to Morey’s tweet and the situation in Hong Kong may not be so different from the way American foreign policy has often been conducted. That is to say, when the costs are low, the prospect of the US doing the right thing may be pretty good; when the costs are high, however, the US tends to be more cautious.

What is certain is that the NBA’s current position is nonetheless political. It could have suspended Daryl Morey, but has chosen not to. There are no constitutional or legal protections that prevent the NBA from sanctioning Morey. The NBA’s inaction is a choice (a choice likely made after serious consideration of the political environment in the US). Similarly, its silence with respect to events in Hong Kong is also a choice (a choice likely made after serious consideration of the political environment in China).

In a way, the position the NBA has adopted evinces a kind of optimism, that is to say, a belief that there exists a state of affairs which everyone can live with. Nevertheless, the NBA still runs a real risk that, by trying to please everybody, it ends up pleasing nobody.

Implications for the West

For commercial companies, the NBA’s difficulty is evidence of an emerging new deal for doing business in China. If, in the past, it was understood that to do business in China a company might need to modify the products it sold there and be cautious with its public communications in China, there was also a sense that what went on outside of China was not something China was generally too concerned with. However, with the NBA’s recent difficulties, it is increasingly clear that, if a business wants continued market access and smooth supply chains in China, then it is important to do what China wants, not just in China, but worldwide.

Although, for most Westerners, the issues raised so far have been, for the most part, esoteric and peripheral ones, the change is no less profound, and the NBA’s situation represents an early, high-profile symbol of Chinese influence on the thoughts, speech and behaviour of individuals and private organisations in the West.

For the West as a whole, the challenge is significant. If one side insists on the worldwide non-contradiction of its official state policy (or worse, a public affirmation of the correctness of such a policy) and the other side believes in free expression (and hence takes no position on what is said or not said), more often than not, the side insisting on things occurring in a particular way will win out.

In addition, a tendency to be responsive to Chinese demands seems to be amplified by a general power imbalance. On one side, there is the Chinese government, and on the other, an individual or private enterprise. Traditionally, Republicans in the US have been strong supporters of free markets.  Markets, however, don’t work automatically. In markets with a single supplier (a monopoly) or a single buyer (a monopsony), one can obtain significantly different prices and sales volumes from what one would find in competitive markets. Market power makes a difference.

The Chinese state is a far larger and stronger entity than any Fortune 500 company, and a fight between the Chinese state and an American multinational is not a balanced one. If the US government leaves American multinationals to work things out on their own with Beijing, the negotiated outcomes are likely to reflect that power imbalance.

While domestically, free markets may be eminently sensible, if a Great Power government is going to weigh in on a private commercial transaction, it is hard to see any other way for things to be evened up again other than for the US government – either on its own or in a coalition with other like-minded governments – to come in and place a hand on the scales. (Although of course, once governments get a taste for such intervention, finding a way to limit future interventions may turn out to be surprisingly difficult.)

Alongside such structural challenges, over time different notions of responsibility and justice may also bubble to the surface. For example, I suspect the idea that Daryl Morey speaks for himself and that the NBA and Houston Rockets bear no responsibility for his statements does not seem very convincing in China. While notions of personal responsibility and people as individuals are pretty well entrenched in the West, in other places, concepts of community responsibility and collective punishment may be much more deeply embedded.

Looking only at the case of language, in China sometimes a ruler may just need to kill a chicken to scare the monkeys (殺雞嚇猴) or punish one to warn a hundred (懲一儆百). There’s even a term for the calamity of having a whole family beheaded after a member of the family commits high treason or rebellion (滅門之禍).

Reasonable relations between China and the West are possible, but they require work on both sides, and maintaining them is unlikely to be easy or straightforward.

Thinking about Hong Kong

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, it is not particularly surprising that Beijing is upset with what is occurring there. Not only is the Chinese government virulently hostile to domestic independence movements, it has also displayed extreme hostility to advocates of democracy and supporters of human rights in China (think Tiananmen or Liu Xiaobo).

More disturbing is that a Yale-educated billionaire who holds a Western passport and lives in the United States could write the following in a Facebook post regarding Morey’s tweet in support of the protests in Hong Kong:

‘What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion?…

‘The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.

‘Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues…

‘When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger…

‘By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China.’

On one level, you might think, hey, this is fine. Joseph Tsai, a wealthy businessman and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, is merely trying to give a Western audience a sense of why many people in China are upset. The problem, however, is that somehow Joe Tsai seems to take it as a given – requiring no comment whatsoever – that the things happening in Hong Kong have to do with separatism.

In my view, the activities in Hong Kong have most directly been to do with a proposed piece of legislation related to extradition. More broadly, the protests are also an expression of discontent with how things are going in Hong Kong, including concerns about possible retaliation for having protested against the bill, worries that some individual freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong are under attack, and aspirations for a more representative government.

Yes, many people in Hong Kong see themselves as different from those who live in other parts of China. Then again, the same might be said – up to a point – of those living in Shanghai or Beijing. While a small number of protesters may be advocates for an independent Hong Kong, the focus of the protests seems to lie elsewhere.

Consider, for example, the protesters’ demands (五大訴求, 缺一不可).  Five demands are listed, including a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality and amendments to the electoral system, but not one of them has to do with independence!

For Joe Tsai to have gone public with his comments, spending so much time on the historical context and then framing the Hong Kong protests in terms of separatism – with no other comment or context whatsoever – is shameful. In contrast, looking over the broad sweep of things, Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and a current presidential candidate, may have sized things up best in his tweet, on 6 October 2019, when he wrote:

‘China is using its economic power to silence critics – even those in the US.’

The United States must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government.

Jonathan Brookfield, is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  His research covers politics, economics, and business strategy in Asia.

Timeline of the Morey tweet and aftermath.

October 4th:    

Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweets an image that reads, (7:41pm) “Fight for Freedom.  Stand with Hong Kong” (ABC News, 10.07.19), shortly thereafter, Morey’s tweet is peppered with upset replies. Less than an hour after posting, Morey erases his tweet (NY Post, 10.16.19).

October 4th:    

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweets: (8:54pm) Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.

October 6th:    

Daryl Morey tweets a response to the growing controversy, saying:


1/ I did not intend my tweet to cause any offence to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.

2/ I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.

October 6th:    

NBA issues an official statement, saying:

“We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.  We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

October 6th:    

Joe Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, posts an open letter on Facebook to all NBA fans.

October 6th:  

It is reported that the Houston Rockets management has had discussions about firing Morey (The Ringer, 10.06.19).

October 8th:    

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issues an additional statement regarding the Morey tweet, saying:

I recognize our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for. Let me be more clear.

Over the last three decades, the NBA has developed a great affinity for the people of China… At the same time, we recognize that our two countries have different political systems and beliefs… Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA – and will continue to do so… It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues.  It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.

However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.  We simply could not operate that way… we believe sports can be a unifying force that focuses on what we have in common as human beings rather than our differences.

October 9th:    

According to reports, at a closed-door meeting in Shanghai of NBA players and officials, LeBron James criticized the NBA’s double standard in not punishing Daryl Morey for his tweet (NY Post, 10.15.19).

October 14th:  

Upon returning to the US, LeBron James publicly criticizes Daryl Morey over Morey’s Hong Kong tweet (USA Today, 10.14.19).

October 17th:  

NBA commissioner Adam Silver says Chinese government asked him to fire Rockets GM Daryl Morey after Morey’s tweet (CBS Sports, 10.17.19).

October 18th:  

Chinese government denies Silver’s claim that they wanted Morey to be fired (AP News, 10.18.19).

October 21st:   

China’s state media declares that Silver will face ‘retribution’ for saying Beijing wanted Rockets GM fired (CNBC, 10.21.19).

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.


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