The NBA thinks it can ignore politics in China. “We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position,” Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta told ESPN. “We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody”; late Friday, Fertitta tweeted, in part, “we are NOT a political organization.”
What Fertitta and his fellow team owners fail to understand, or choose to ignore, is that in today’s China, the NBA is a political organization. To succeed in China as the NBA has, it has needed to align itself with the Chinese Communist Party. The NBA partners with the Ministry of Education. It maintains a training camp in the northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang, where upwards of a million Muslims are in concentration camps — because the Party wants to develop the region and to normalize its atrocities. For the NBA to post that it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment” from the Houston Rockets general manager, and, echoing Party-speak, claim that the deleted tweet “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans,” is an intensely political move. And, like Chinese party organizations, the NBA even delivered a different message in English and Chinese. The NBA’s comments in English — “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them” — were far milder.
It’s not just the NBA. In a December 2018 statement, McKinsey said “we do not support or engage in political activities.” But McKinsey has advised at least 22 of China’s 100 largest state-owned enterprises, according to the New York Times — companies that are literally arms of the party-state — and in 2018 held a retreat in Xinjiang, just miles from a camp. In China — where McDonald’s claimed to “uphold Chinese territorial sovereignty,” where Marriott International apologized for supporting subversion, and where Airbnb openly discriminates against Tibetans and Uighur Muslims — politics dominates.
U.S. businesses don’t degrade themselves because they respect Beijing’s political views. They degrade themselves because Beijing makes examples of certain businesses that don’t comply with its political orthodoxy. And that punishment hurts, because the Chinese market remains intensely lucrative: Chinese Internet giant Tencent reportedly paid $1.5 billion for the five-year contract it signed with the NBA in July. The sports league known for its tolerance cowered, as the sports website Deadspin puts it, because Beijing “actually has the ability to do what thick-necked Americans in Oakleys who like to burn shoes on their lawn wish they could: put a giant hole in the NBA’s business.”
Public shaming of organizations such as the NBA helps raise the cost in the United States for its ignominy in China: One just needs to scroll through Twitter to see the furor their cowardice incited. The next step requires American businesses to coordinate responses to protect an organization when one of its affiliates voices an opinion that displeases Beijing. What’s bad for the NBA in China is bad for Google, too. The Trump administration has the political will — in May 2018, it called Beijing’s ordering U.S. airlines to change how they refer to Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as “Orwellian nonsense” — but lacks the discipline, attention and integrity. Airlines ignored the White House anyway. Delta, after listing Taiwan as a separate country on its website, said it was “an inadvertent error with no business or political intention” and changed the listing. It falls to an American chamber of commerce or another nonprofit to teach the American business community that when an individual company doesn’t yield, it will afford them all more space to maneuver.
American businesses don’t need to choose between China and the United States. They need to choose between their corporate values and the values of the Chinese Communist Party.