It was entirely consistent with this ideal that the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, posted an image on Twitter on Friday night that included support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Though Mr. Morey soon deleted it, the tweet quickly angered China’s Communist rulers. They have been struggling to squelch the Hong Kong protestors, who want China to honor its commitments for democracy and rule of law in that semi-autonomous territory. The Chinese Consulate in Houston declared it was “deeply shocked by the erroneous comments” and demanded the team “correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”
Pathetically, the league immediately capitulated, essentially importing to the United States China’s denial of free speech. It apologized to China, saying Mr. Morey’s tweet was “regrettable”; a Chinese-language version called it “inappropriate.” The team owner rushed to disavow Mr. Morey’s support for democracy, tweeting that Mr. Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets.” Mr. Morey issued a groveling reconsideration that would have been welcome in a Communist Party criticism/self-criticism session.
Of course, a lot of money is at stake. The Chinese Basketball Association immediately suspended relations with the Houston Rockets. Sponsors began pulling back from deals. Tencent, the Chinese digital rights holder for NBA broadcasts, dropped the team from streaming. The NBA is big business in China, where 500 million people watched games last season, according to the Associated Press, and where a new streaming deal alone will generate $1.5 billion for the league over the next five years.
But that’s the point. China is attempting to enforce its version of the truth all around the world — bullying Chinese-language newspapers in Canada and the United States, patrolling the speech of its students abroad, demanding that foreign airlines and hotel chains wipe Taiwan off their maps. Some of its targets don’t have the wherewithal to stand up to this assault — which is why the NBA’s cravenness is so damaging. With all its financial muscle, its enormous popularity and its moral preening, if the NBA can cave so easily, who will resist the censorship of the Communist dictators?
Those dictators will say, as usual, that Mr. Morey’s tweet offended the “Chinese people.” But because the Chinese people themselves are not free to speak out — since anyone in China expressing support for the Hong Kong movement is also punished — those claims should not be taken seriously. And if Mr. Silver really believes that “you really do have to stand for something” — what will it be, if not freedom of expression in Hong Kong, in Houston and around the world?