LeBron James and the rest of the NBA need to decide which audience they value more, the Chinese one or the American one. The choice is stark, and no amount of confusing the issue with cultural relativism and talk of rudeness to the host can obscure it. They can either quit being active exporters of China’s stifling repression or lose the goodwill of their fellow citizens. It’s a choice that matters a lot more than whether one athlete should shut up and dribble.

James is hardly the first person to be caught in the moral thicket of business with China and come off looking unpardonably wrong or weak. Nobel economist Milton Friedman got there long before he did. So did the CEOs of General Electric, McDonald’s, VISA, Marriott and the Gap. James is merely the latest and most prominent practitioner of self-censorship, a nifty little thing that Chinese president Xi Jinping specializes in coercing from unsuspecting naifs before sending them off to be cheerful ambassadors of baton despotism. Can we please stop confusing free markets with freedom and admit that we aren’t changing China? To the contrary, if we aren’t careful, China will change us.

James deserves the outrage he has invited, but it’s vital to recognize he’s just another American patsy to the Chinese party-state along with his entire league and he has displayed no more or less wisdom and courage than Disney executives or the International Olympic Committee. China experts and the country’s own dissidents increasingly recognize that China has gone “transnational” with its tyrannies, flexing itself not just in domestic crackdowns but in a “massive outreach programme,” in the words of Eva Pils, author of the 2017 book “Human Rights in China.”

It strikes collaborative deals with overseas businesses and organizations and then makes those institutions indebted to the Chinese government for permissions — thereby forcing acceptance of outrageous practices in previously democratic places. Thus, the IOC tolerates Chinese slave labor to build stadiums and the bugging of hotels during the Games. And soon the virus gets carried overseas, buried in a chip or in the mouth of a ballplayer.

Four-time NBA MVP LeBron James publicly addressed Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey’s controversial tweet in support of the Hong Kong protest movement on Oct. 15. (Ben Golliver/The Washington Post)

James took rationalization for the China regime’s behavior across the border and back home, just as its leaders hoped he would — and that’s a dangerous thing to carry through passport control. More dangerous than he even realizes.

Instead of defending unfettered freedom of expression, a value he has championed so boldly in his marketing campaigns, James suddenly went all morally relativistic and suggested we should be “educated” before we speak aloud about China. He put the blame on Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey for his tweet supporting pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. As opposed to club-wielding authorities beating down protesters trying to protect Hong Kong’s judicial independence. Or Xi Jinping, who on Sunday threatened, “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”

Better be careful with free speech, James warned, because “there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”

Teng Biao, a prominent dissident lawyer who fled China five years ago after detentions and now teaches at Hunter College, pointed out that the Jinping regime’s “outreach” has included kidnapping dissidents on foreign soil, including in Australia and Canada, for forced repatriation. The U.S. State Department has expressed fear it could happen here. There is nothing harmless about the complicit silence of Americans doing business in China, and the assumption that their human rights abuses only happen a world away is dead wrong.

“China is becoming more and more oppressive on other international states and not listening to any criticism,” Teng said. “The Chinese government wants to silence the critics and wants to export its own narrative and its own soft power and sharp power.”

The NBA’s strategy in China of groveling apology followed by concerted silence is not just gutless or calculating. Worse, it’s based on a clinging starry-eyed belief that capitalism will somehow someday democratize China. As it happens, the league should consider that the opposite is what’s really occurring. The NBA, like every other American business, has become prey to certain fallacies perpetrated by the Chinese party-state. One fallacy, as Pils has noted, is that lobbying for human rights reforms in China is a form of insulting “cultural imperialism.” Another is that the Chinese government can be excused for its policies because it has “lifted millions out of poverty.” As if un-poverty isn’t possible without un-freedom, without beatings and torture and displacing millions.

Friedman was absolutely sure the free market was the insurer of freedom. One of his favorite examples was how the Hollywood Blacklist ended with an Academy Award for the film “The Brave One.” It had been ghostwritten by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten who was jailed and ostracized for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When it was revealed that Trumbo was the real writer of “The Brave One,” the producer defended himself by saying, “We have an obligation to our stockholders to buy the best script we can.”

The Blacklist, Friedman said, was “a thoroughly unfree act that destroys freedom.” But it ultimately didn’t work, he argued, “precisely because the market made it costly for people to preserve the blacklist.”

But with China, the script has flipped. The market has made it costly for people to preserve free speech. We, who are free, are committing thoroughly unfree acts for the sake of that market.

Hundreds of American companies are self-censoring to preserve access to the enormous Chinese consumer market. The NBA, like all the others, is in China because it is obsessed with “growth.” But is growth the best benchmark of prosperity? General Electric proved that you can grow a great American company to death. And corporate leaders these days understand that investors and customers increasingly want to feel that a company is not just growing but doing some good — or, at least, not despoiling. That might account for the size and persistence of the firestorm the NBA finds itself in.

There is a special disgust in the American audience toward the NBA right now. Why? Why should we mind the silence and complicity of a basketball league so much more than we do that of the Marriott hotel chain? Why is it so upsetting to hear LeBron James toady to China?

Perhaps because we expected him to be braver than the average salary-clawing suit. Perhaps because all Americans feel like stakeholders in their favorite teams, which is a kind of ownership even if we don’t have stock, and that makes them unique cultural carriers of our values. And just maybe, for all of our tired, swamp-sickened, realpolitik, world-weary cynicism, we don’t like to see those values betrayed for a damn buck.

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