Claremont, CALIFORNIA – The Chinese folk saying “lift a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet,” or its English equivalent — “to shoot oneself in the foot” — perfectly describes the self-defeating inclinations of dictatorship. And nothing exemplifies such inclinations so much as China’s recent effort to bully America’s National Basketball Association.
The row began when the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted (and quickly deleted) support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The response was swift. China’s government blacklisted the Rockets, ordered the state-run television network to cancel broadcasts of two NBA pregame matches, and instructed Chinese companies to suspend their sponsorships and licensing agreements with the NBA.
As the NBA’s largest international market, China expected the league to scurry back into line, apologize for offending the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and pledge never to repeat the mistake. And, initially, the NBA did just that. “We feel greatly disappointed at [Morey’s] inappropriate speech, which is regrettable,” the league said in a statement. “We take respecting Chinese history and culture as a serious matter.”
But that attempt to kowtow to China sparked outrage among U.S. lawmakers, who accused the NBA of choosing money over human rights. “No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted. The NBA threw Morey “under the bus” to protect their market access, Sen. Marco Rubio added, calling the move “disgusting.”
Under pressure, NBA commissioner Adam Silver then seemed to shift the league’s position. In an interview with a Japanese news outlet, he said, “Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
In the end, it was China that had to back down. The authorities allowed a previously scheduled NBA exhibition game to be played in Shanghai — to the cheers of thousands of Chinese fans — and ordered state media to play down the controversy. The lesson should be clear: Bullying is a surefire way to lose friends and make enemies in the West.
China may be a lucrative market for the NBA, which has reaped billions of dollars in revenue through broadcasting and merchandise-licensing deals in the country; but the NBA is also a very valuable friend to China. Its relationship with the league is one of the great successes in its cultural and commercial relations with the United States and a powerful example of Sino-American “sports diplomacy.”
Such diplomacy has a storied history in U.S.-China relations. During the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, the U.S. player Glenn Cowan boarded a shuttle bus with the Chinese national team. Rather than avoid him, as the Chinese team had been instructed to do, its top player, Zhuang Zedong, initiated a conversation with the American (through an interpreter). The two players even exchanged gifts — an act of goodwill that garnered significant positive media attention.
Recognizing the diplomatic opportunity, Mao Zedong invited the U.S. team for an all-expenses-paid visit to China. The heavily documented trip — which included tours of important sites, exhibition pingpong matches and even an audience with Premier Zhou Enlai — opened the way for the two governments to begin back-channel communications and, eventually, to normalize bilateral relations.
Mao and U.S. President Richard Nixon did not squander the opportunity that sports diplomacy presented. But, by picking a fight with the NBA, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government could well have. At a time when Sino-American relations are in free fall, this is the last thing China needs.
To some extent, China’s response was probably a hubris-induced miscalculation. The government has effortlessly bullied some of the world’s largest and best-known companies into submission after they offended its delicate political sensitivities. (Apple and Marriott International listed Chinese territories, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, as separate countries; Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, didn’t prohibit its employees from participating in pro-democracy protests.)
China has used similar tactics to pressure Western governments into bending to its will. For example, it cut off high-level exchanges and curtailed business dealings with France, Germany and the United Kingdom when they hosted the Dalai Lama.
Similarly, after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, China suspended salmon imports from Norway (though the Norwegian government has no influence over the Nobel committee’s decision). China ended up getting its way in nearly all of these showdowns, with Western actors expressing remorse and seeking to regain China’s favor.
But hubris is only part of the story. Chinese officials have strong incentives to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, even at the expense of strategic objectives. The resulting modus operandi — called ning zuo wu you, which loosely translates to “rather left than right” — influences most official calculations. The decision to bully the NBA was more than likely taken by a party apparatchik eager to curry favor with CCP superiors.
With intimidation hard-wired into the Chinese system, such self-defeating behavior is likely to continue — and cost the CCP dearly. The more friends China turns into enemies, whether out of hubris or instinct, the easier it will be for the U.S. to assemble a broad coalition to contain its power and ambitions. At that point, the Chinese bully’s favorite tactic for defending its interests will become even less effective.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2019. www.project-syndicate.org