“Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted that message on Friday. It’s a sentiment that should command broad support in the United States, and throughout the free world.
But the reaction from China, which does not number free expression among its cherished values, was swift and painful for the N.B.A. The shoe company Li Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank ended sponsorship deals with the Rockets; Chinese broadcasters said they would not show Rockets games; the Chinese Basketball Association — led by the former Rockets star Yao Ming — suspended ties with the team.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” said Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner.
Mr. Silver went on to add that he supported Mr. Morey, but “what I am supporting is his freedom of political expression in this situation.”
The billionaires who control the lucrative basketball league, however, nearly tripped over themselves in their haste to abjure Mr. Morey’s remarks. The N.B.A., like many large American businesses, is besotted by the opportunity to make money in China’s expanding market. And the league once again made clear it is willing to obey China’s rules to preserve that chance.
The owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, raced for the traditional refuge of international capitalists — the insistence that business can be segregated from political considerations. “We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody,” Mr. Fertitta told ESPN.
But it should be perfectly clear that playing basketball in China is political.
Last year, the N.B.A. staged a game in South Africa for the explicit purpose of celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela. When the N.B.A. goes to China, that’s a statement, too.
It means that the N.B.A. has weighed China’s human rights abuses against China’s potential as a source of revenue, and it has decided that it can live with state policies like the detention of hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The owner of the Brooklyn Nets, the Chinese billionaire Joe Tsai, took the opportunity to publish an open letter scolding Americans for talking about the affairs of other nations. He also mischaracterized the Hong Kong protests as a “separatist movement.”
Mr. Tsai’s suggestion that people should avoid “third rail” issues may well be good manners when visiting a foreign country, but Mr. Morey posted his tweet while visiting Japan — and on a website that is not accessible to the general public in mainland China.
The face of the Rockets, the point guard James Harden, issued a public apology on Monday.
“We apologize,” he said.
For what, exactly, remained unclear.
Do the N.B.A.’s owners appreciate that their wealth is a product of the freedoms they enjoy in this country? Does Mr. Harden, the owner of a famous beard, know that Muslims in Xinjiang are not allowed to grow beards like his?
The N.B.A. has an undoubted right to set rules for its work force, but it cannot simultaneously claim to champion free expression — the value of which consists entirely in the right to say what others don’t want to hear.
American executives and policymakers initially reconciled themselves to following China’s rules by arguing that China’s turn toward capitalism, and its exposure to the United States, would gradually lead toward democracy and a greater respect for human rights. They argued, in effect, that silence was the most productive form of criticism.
It should now be clear that silence is merely complicity, no more or less.
It is the moral price the N.B.A. and other businesses are paying for making money in China.
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