James has just returned from a tour of China, where he played in two high-profile exhibition games in Shanghai and Shenzhen, the latter of which is just minutes from Hong Kong. Back on home soil, he opined that Morey's tweet showed “he wasn't educated on the situation” and that his statement had endangered people — “not only financially, but physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.”
Many Americans and Hong Kongers laced into James for seeming to undermine the cause of Hong Kong protesters for reasons of financial self-interest.
While drawing headlines because of how some players, coaches and owners seemed to prioritize the bottom line over freedom, this is far from the first time that sport has made waves in the relationship between Americans and Chinese.
The history of sports diplomacy between the United States and China holds lessons for what the NBA’s next play should be. Americans should stick to their guns — as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has — and avoid bowing to Chinese pressure to discipline Morey — as James has. Standing up for principle will most probably gain the respect of the Chinese.
The current era of Sino-American contacts began with sports: the famous ping-pong diplomacy of 1971. That moment brought amateur American table tennis players out of their garages and into Mao’s China at a time when there was no official contact between the governments of the two countries. That visit helped precipitate Richard Nixon’s visit to China the following year and kick-started a program of sporting exchange visits that continued throughout the 1970s. The Chinese proclaimed that they would follow a principle of “Friendship First, Competition Second.” But if friendship came first, politics — and even conflict — followed close behind.
Controversies were common in the first years of sporting contact between the two countries. In 1972, a return leg of ping-pong diplomacy held in the United States saw cacophonous, sometimes violent protests in which the Chinese players were goaded to defect and pelted with dead rats by protesters. And in 1975, a U.S. track and field team disrupted a final dinner in their honor with a fistfight among their ranks, fueled by fierce Chinese liquor.
Then, in 1978, China threatened to cancel a trip by America's best volleyballers because their coach held an Israeli passport, at a time when Beijing refused any dealings with that state. In all cases, the Chinese were disturbed by the behavior of Americans; often, they demanded that Americans bend their own rules to defuse the situation.
But the United States refused. Protests at the ping-pong matches were allowed to continue, albeit with a CIA security detail providing physical protection for the Chinese players. The U.S. volleyball coach eventually got his visa, despite his Israeli citizenship. And the Americans avoided apologies: As one of the most senior figures on the track and field trip commented after that visit’s drunken brawl, “Americans will be Americans” and “The Chinese will have to learn that."
In the 1970s, when the Chinese protested American insensitivities, U.S. organizers of athletic exchanges simply stated that they could not — and would not — control the lawful behavior of Americans, however inconvenient and uncomfortable it was for both visitors and hosts.
The record shows that the Chinese respected that stance. However alien it was to the sensibilities of a Mao-era apparatchik, U.S. freedom of speech was far from unintelligible to astute officials; they knew that when their U.S. counterparts said it was beyond their power to prevent their compatriots protesting (or brawling), they were being honest. China’s reaction to a firm U.S. stance was to vocally register its discontent — but then to allow a resumption of business as normal.
It might be argued that the NBA today has too much to lose to take such a principled stance, given China’s rising economic and geopolitical power. Past years have seen U.S. companies from Delta to Marriott bow to Chinese pressure, whether to remove Taiwan from a drop-down list of countries or to sanction their employees’ tweets.
But history suggests that the storm will blow over if Americans hold the line and show sensitivity that stops short of censure. This is already happening in the latest row: A ban on televising the NBA has already been lifted for all but the Houston Rockets, while Chinese media has noticeably cooled its treatment of this issue (seemingly on orders from above).
China is likely to back down as it did in the 1970s because its outspoken criticism of American behavior is not actually intended for American audiences, nor do the Chinese have any interest in severing their ties to the NBA. Kicking up a fuss about Morey’s tweet isn’t an effort to censure Morey or clash with the United States, but to promote Beijing’s domestic narrative that Hong Kongers are being stirred up by nefarious outside forces that want to use domestic turbulence to undermine and split China.
Similarly, China’s clashes with the United States on the issue of Taiwan since the 1970s have acted as a rallying cry for audiences at home and a veiled threat to the people of Taiwan.
When Chinese ping-pong players visited the United States in 1972, their visit was delayed by Premier Zhou Enlai because a rival team from Taiwan traveled to America on the dates that the Chinese were planning to visit. By postponing the high-profile visit, China reminded Washington that it objected to having contacts — diplomatic or sporting — with the United States while the country also dealt with Taiwan. What Beijing was really signaling was its expectation that Washington should switch official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing (the United States finally did, nearly seven years later).
But it is U.S. government policies such as these that Beijing objects to far more than the words of an NBA executive with no ability to change American policy. The Chinese understand that the ambiguities and tensions in the relationship between the U.S. and Chinese governments and societies are long-standing: The same issues that complicated sporting exchanges in the 1970s are the subject of disputes today. There is no need, then, to duck these issues as James suggested Morey should have done.
Neither side should pretend to be something it is not. Americans tweet their opinions about political issues, even regarding countries about which they are not “educated.” James might have found the timing of Morey’s tweet inconvenient, but Americans should not succumb to a deference that borders on censorship.
There is value in being respectful and sensitive in sports diplomacy. From ping-pong diplomacy onward, both Americans and Chinese have celebrated sporting encounters as a binding agent in relations between the two peoples. The huge popularity of the NBA in China is testament to this: Exhibition games of the sort that were held last week were first held in China in the 1970s. Both sides have sought to conduct those encounters under the logic of “Friendship First.” But when politics become embroiled in sporting contacts, the best approach to Chinese remonstrations has been to acknowledge the Chinese perspective and their right to express it — but to insist that such logic should apply to Americans, too.