NBA, China, and a Seven-Word Tweet: What Was Lost in Translation?

This is the story of how a seven-word tweet sparked an intercultural conflict over freedom of speech and emphasized the gap between different political perceptions of media and government relations. What could the NBA have done better?

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

On October 4, 2019, Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, caused a huge commotion between the NBA and China, as he tweeted his support for freedom in Hong Kong:

“fight for freedom, free Hong Kong.”

That’s all he tweeted.

However, this was everything for China. Morey’s tweet sparked an angry reaction from the Chinese government, who threatened to cut ties with the NBA, ban TV broadcasting of Huston Rockets games, and stop sales of the team’s merchandise.

For context, Hong Kong is facing a major political crisis amid repeated street protests and mass demonstrations. What started as a movement against a controversial law has expanded into something much bigger. The protesters are demanding greater democracy and an inquiry into alleged police brutality during past demonstrations. The protestors pose a challenge to China’s central government and the status quo of China’s relations with Hong Kong.

Historically, the NBA’s relationship with China has been very lucrative. The Chinese market for NBA games and merchandise is massive, and over 300 million Chinese children and adults play basketball. When it was formed, the relationship was worth $2 billion. It’s now worth $4 billion. The conflict over Morey’s tweet has meant risking a huge amount of money for the league.

But even more than the possible financial loss, this conflict is a cultural milestone for the US-China relationship.

Why has this random seven-word tweet been singled out amidst the endless flow of information on social networks? How does it challenge the classical hierarchy of news? Why has this random protest, unlike so many others, caught the Chinese government’s attention?

Yao Ming from Wikipedia (approved under free use license)

The Houston Rockets are an important cultural symbol for the Chinese audience. Yao Ming, possibly the greatest Chinese basketball player, was the team’s first pick in the 2002 Draft. He spent the entirety of his successful NBA career with the Houston Rockets and has a huge influence on the Chinese audience. Thus, the Houston Rockets are not just another NBA team. It is THE team for the Chinese fans. The one that cultivated their national pride and allowed him to shine.

Clearly, Daryl Morey’s tweet was more than just another bit of social network chatter. It entered the already complicated relationship between the team and its Chinese fans, triggering cultural and historical ramifications.

The NBA thought this was a conflict between two organizations that do business together. Something that resembles a disagreement within the scope of a mutual business relationship. They thought they could agree to disagree, resolve the misunderstanding, and continue. They issued an announcement that tried to catch two narratives at the same time: a kind of apology and a message of unity, resembling the understanding that both sides can disagree and follow different practices of freedom of expression. Something along the lines of ‘we can talk separately, but we are all here for a joint cause”.

The NBA’s message was problematic because their use of the word ‘regrettable’ was vague and unclear. It wasn’t clear whether they regret that the Chinese fans’ feelings were hurt or that this has happened to begin with. Semantically, the use of the word regrettable stands out as distant and aloof. It doesn’t express any empathy or compassion but is strictly business. The league emphasized its support for freedom of speech and mentioned the cultural gap between the countries and their hope that basketball could bridge over it.

The NBA’s message could potentially sound effective for the American audience’s perspective. It emphasizes critical and fundamental aspects of the American view of freedom of speech. However, the message also failed to communicate this concept to the American audience.

Clearly, the NBA has stepped right into a cultural conflict over different political views of the freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech and the opportunities for citizens to voice their opinions is a relative value. It is not derivative stemming out of humankind’s natural existence. Rather, freedom of speech is a political, cultural, and social ideology. A political philosophy that describes different approaches and world views of the ability of citizens to speak freely. Countries bestow on their citizens the right to express their opinions as a result of their political perception of democracy and the state’s relationships with its citizens and the media.

Image by Wynn Pointaux from Pixabay

The American perception of the freedom of speech, as manifested in the First Amendment to the Constitution, views this right as fundamental to the existence and the strength of the nation. The American “freedom of speech grants all Americans the liberty to criticize the government and speak their minds without fear of being censored or persecuted.” The Founding Fathers celebrated the importance of the freedom of speech and the press as a central resource to preserve democracy and stop tyranny.

Yet, the perception of the freedom of speech is derived from different political cultures and their views of the relationships between governments and their citizens. Different countries have different perceptions of and rules on how to govern the freedom of speech. These rules and practices stem from and express their different political ideologies.

China, in this case, practices a different political ideology towards the freedom of speech. In China, the government is more involved in shaping the nature and scope of the freedom of speech: the Chinese state is positioned as the controller of speech and assembly, in part this is because they perceive possible criticism as tied to their national pride and interests. The Chinese perception of the freedom of speech distinguishes between political criticism and social and civil discourse. While social critique could be legitimate in some cases, Daryl Morey’s tweet was considered to be political criticism. This kind of criticism, directly pointing at the government, is perceived as a direct threat to the nation and its stability. From this Chinese point of view, criticism against the government is seen to be unpatriotic. Following this authoritarian political philosophy, patriotic interests justify limiting the freedom of speech.

The Chinese response to the NBA’s announcement makes clear their views on the exercise of freedom of speech. While the NBA emphasized the importance of free speech as a fundamental democratic right, the Chinese state-run television channel CCTV emphasized the limits of the freedom of speech: it must not challenge the government or the nation’s stability. This conflict, between different views of the freedom of speech, is the cultural conflict the NBA has not anticipated. Here is the Chinese response, as reported by CNBC:

CNBC, October 8, 2019

The second and most surprising outcome for the NBA was the angry responses their announcement received from both sides of the American political discourse. Both Republicans and Democrats joined in criticizing the league for “implementing a gag rule on Americans” and for ingratiating themselves to the Chinese while abandoning the American ethos of the freedom of speech for monetary profits. Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, released a statement calling the NBA’s message shameful. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, tweeted “we’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.” Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic contender for president, called the NBA’s apology to China an “embarrassment.”

Senator Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke’s tweets

Conventionally, the NBA is considered to be a league that promotes and cherishes its players’ and managers’ freedom of speech: “NBA players have a reputation as being more vocal on social and political issues than any other group of professional athletes.

Though as a player Michael Jordan was less eager to express political opinions than he now is as an owner, more recently, we have seen more and more examples of players that speak their minds on controversial political issues.

This is why the NBA’s justification for ingratiating itself to the Chinese government over the American political view of the freedom of speech was considered a weakness on all sides of the court. The league has miss read the discourse with the Chinese and the American audiences at the same time.

What could have they done differently?

Mainly, they need to understand that the relationship between America and China is very sensitive, especially in the current financial trade war. Also, they should understand that this conflict is not a mere business issue, but a kind of cultural conflict over values and control.

As a first step, the NBA should have taken advice from an expert on Chinese politics and culture, to learn how this conflict is seen in Chinese eyes. Following that lesson, they should have drafted a message that would address both the Chinses audience and the American one. If the messages were to be in conflict, then like in most conflicts, the first step is to realize this is a conflict, and the second one is to choose a side, as they eventually did when they supported Morey’s freedom of speech.

What will come next? Most likely, the parties will find a way to cooperate and keep this huge enterprise going. Oddly enough, on the same day Lebron James tweeted his criticism of Morey’s tweet, the NBA began to air their games on Chinese TV again. Until the next time.

Shani Horowitz-Rozen, Ph.D.

Written by

Marketing & communication for change-makers. Designing stories of social change. Framing is everything.

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