When President Barack Obama and his advisors set out to redirect American foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia, they invoked a metaphor from basketball, the game that the president famously played and loved. The United States would “pivot” to Asia where our greatest challenges and opportunities in this century will all unfold. Years later, in the midst of the U.S.-China trade war and the Trump administration’s new strategic competition with China, it may be basketball that awakens America to the real scale of our burgeoning China problem.
When Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted out his support for the Hong Kong protests on October 4, it ignited a firestorm for the NBA. With a multibillion-dollar market and an estimated 500 million basketball fans, China had arguably become the NBA’s most important project outside of the United States. However, the league’s focus on China’s sports fans and the rising Chinese consumer missed an even bigger and more important picture: the Chinese Communist Party and its plans for the 21st century.
China’s plans are far more ambitious than the subjugation of a professional sports league. China wants nothing less than to become the dominant global superpower, overtaking the United States, breaking our alliance system and ending America’s economic and military preeminence. The Communist Party doesn’t just want to impose its dictates on the speech and practices of American basketball players but on America and our allies around the world. This may sound too extreme to contemplate for people without direct exposure to China and its system of government. However taking on the NBA has, perhaps for the first time in a long time, made the problem of China a household headline in America.
We have now caught the first tiny glimpse of what it would mean for China to, as its leaders desire, eventually rule the world. The Communist Party has pressured the NBA to apologize, and even, it emerges, to fire Daryl Morey for exercising his freedom of speech on American soil. (Twitter, notably, is banned in China.) China’s celebrities and corporations have boycotted, threatened and broken ties with the NBA, despite enjoying access to American culture and to the vast American market.
The NBA in general and Adam Silver, in particular, have been impressive in their stand against the People’s Republic of China. Regardless of this pressure from China’s government, here’s what Silver said last week about the request to fire Morey: “There’s no chance that’s happening. There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
This kind of courage, when there are dollars at stake, has been a long time coming. Indeed, Adam Silver’s statement may be a turning point in the state of U.S.-China business relations. “We wanted to make an absolutely clear statement that the values of the NBA, these American values — we are an American business — travel with us wherever we go,” Silver noted. “And one of those values is a free expression.”
Rarely, if ever, has an American firm stood up to the Communist Party and its methods. Here is the real state of play: America’s major corporations have increasingly been forced to fire employees and to apologize for maps of China which fail to endorse the military objectives of the Communist Party, including in the South China Sea and in other places of enormous geopolitical importance. Engagement with China now means the censorship of Hollywood movies and the censorship of American television screenwriting. China’s propaganda arms are now waging communications warfare against American citizens on American social media, something which our tech giants have been unable to prevent. All of this, it must be emphasized, is only a small taste of what China’s leaders ultimately have in mind.