Sen. Hawley's Motives May Be Political, But He's Not Wrong About the NBA and China

It’s been roughly ten months since Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey fired off a tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters that sparked an intense national debate about the NBA’s relationship with China. At the time, residents of Hong Kong were locked in a tense battle against a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that was trying to impose a new extradition law in Hong Kong. The law, which would have exposed journalists and activists to prosecution by authorities in Beijing, was widely understood to be a backdoor attempt to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

While Hong Kong’s citizens were fighting to preserve their autonomy, close to a million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the autonomous region of Xinjiang were being rounded up and shipped off to internment camps for “re-education.” Former detainees reported being tortured, raped, and forcibly drugged during their time inside the camps, and official Chinese documents leaked to the media were described by some experts as the blueprints for a “cultural genocide” of the Uighur people. It appeared that the CCP was in the process of constructing its very own gulag archipelago designed to wipe out the Uighur’s cultural and religious traditions.

Since then, the situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang have only grown more dire, and Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri isn’t letting the NBA off the hook for its continued silence on these issues. In a letter sent last week to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Hawley expressed his disappointment with the league’s list of social justice slogans that players will be allowed to wear on the backs of their jerseys during the upcoming season. Earlier this month, ESPN published a list of the 29 slogans from which players will be permitted to choose. None of the slogans include any references to China, Hong Kong, or the Uighurs. Hawley also objected to the absence of slogans expressing support for police officers and the military.

Upon receiving a copy of the press release about Hawley’s letter, ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski sent a two-word response to Hawley’s office: “Fuck you.” Hawley posted the email on Twitter, and ESPN wasted no time in taking action, issuing Wojnarowski a two-week suspension without pay.

Are Senator Hawley’s motives as sincere as he would like us to believe? Wojnarowski clearly doesn’t think so. I’m guessing that the many NBA players who have been tweeting #FreeWoj this week feel the same way, and I can’t say that their skepticism of Hawley and the GOP’s intentions is entirely unwarranted. 

Republicans are in a very bad place right now. A Quinnipiac poll released last Wednesday has President Trump losing to Joe Biden by 15 points among registered voters and puts the president’s job approval rating at a measly 36%. Confidence in the economy is severely lacking, and it could drop even further as governors start rolling out new regulations in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases across the country. Now more than ever, the GOP is in desperate need of a controversy to help galvanize their base against a common enemy and redirect the nation’s attention away from the party’s recent string of failures and missteps. The NBA’s relationship with China is perfectly suited for that purpose.

Furthermore, if Senator Hawley is genuinely concerned with what is happening in China, then why hasn’t he been as publicly critical of President Trump as he has of the NBA? It is, after all, the responsibility of the president to take the lead on these sorts of issues, and Trump has largely failed in that regard—first by delaying sanctions against Chinese Communist Party officials in the hopes of finalizing a new trade deal with China, and then again by asking Republican Senator Kevin Cramer to stall passage of a bipartisan sanctions bill written in response to the CCP’s interference in Hong Kong. Clearly, the president is less concerned with holding the CCP accountable for its actions than he is with boosting his own popularity.

So now we can confidently declare that Hawley’s antics are nothing more than political theater, right? Not exactly. The problem for the NBA and its supporters is that they can’t just dismiss Hawley’s criticisms as baseless rhetoric. Regardless of his intentions, nearly all of the available evidence supports his side of this debate. 

On June 30, a new security law came into effect in Hong Kong that effectively criminalizes activities deemed a threat to the CCP’s authority, and it didn’t take long for the CCP to start wielding their new power as an instrument of intimidation. This past week, in an obvious move to delegitimatize the results of the Hong Kong opposition party’s primary election, the CCP announced that the hundreds of thousands of citizens who voted in the election may be guilty of violating the new security law. It is entirely possible, and perhaps even likely, that many of the pro-democracy candidates involved in that primary will be prohibited from running in September’s legislative elections. 

The CCP has also reportedly stepped up its ongoing genocide of the Uighur people. According to the Associated Press, Uighur women have been and continue to be routinely subjected to forced abortions and sterilization, as well as the mandated use of intrauterine devices. Failure to comply with population control measures frequently leads to imprisonment in one of the many aforementioned internment camps in Xinjiang. Consequently, birth rates in predominantly Uighur regions have dropped dramatically over the last several years. 

By every conceivable metric, the Uighur genocide has become one of the most outrageous human rights atrocities happening in the world today, and Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy could portend further expansionist activities by the CCP. Despite these developments, however, the NBA seems quite keen on repairing its relationship with China. In a recent interview with Time, Commissioner Silver claimed that the league has maintained an open dialogue with its business partners in China, as well as with “certain government officials.” He was also optimistic that China and the NBA would be able to “find mutual respect for each other.” At no point in the interview did he address the criticisms pertaining to the league’s relationship with the CCP.

Last October, I argued that the NBA has a moral obligation to clarify its positions on the CCP’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and I continue to stand by that argument. You cannot jump into bed with a genocidal, anti-democratic regime and then cry foul when you’re criticized for choosing to turn a blind eye to that regime’s atrocities.

That’s especially true in the case of the NBA, which has gone to great lengths to establish itself as a progressive organization over the last few years. When North Carolina passed its infamous 2016 bathroom bill, the league decided to stand on its progressive principles and pull its annual All-Star game out of Charlotte. And in response to the recent nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, it announced that it would allow social justice messages to be displayed on players’ jerseys and paint “Black Lives Matter” on the courts of all three Florida arenas where this season’s games will be played. Yet on the issues of the Uighur genocide and the CCP’s efforts to demolish democracy in Hong Kong, the league has been as silent as a tumbleweed rolling gently across the sands of an open desert.

The league’s supporters have offered up a range of excuses to try and rationalize that silence, but every one of those excuses falls flat under scrutiny. 

Some have argued, for instance, that the NBA has no obligation, moral or otherwise, to speak up about foreign affairs that don’t concern America. By this logic, however, one could argue that South African apartheid was also none of America’s business, and that it was wholly unfair for anti-apartheid activists to pressure American corporations to stop doing business with South Africa. But I very much doubt that Adam Silver, Lebron James, Steve Kerr, or Gregg Popovich would agree with that conclusion.

The uncomfortable truth is that as objectionable as the GOP’s perceived insincerity may be, they’re not wrong about the disturbing implications of the NBA’s intimate relationship with China. And even if Senator Hawley’s motivations are purely political, that doesn’t mean the questions he posed in his letter to Commissioner Silver aren’t worth asking. So long as the NBA continues to exhibit no concern whatsoever for its role in enabling the CCP’s tyranny, it will have to continue grappling with criticisms and questions regarding its hypocritical approach to dealing with China. And they should, because no genuinely progressive organization would ever prioritize the preservation of profit over the preservation of the rights of a persecuted minority facing extinction at the hands of a genocidal government. 

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