Here at SOFREP, we’ve spent years discussing the ways China has used money to exert influence over American culture, carefully shaping the way the nation is perceived by the American public. Although Russia garners the majority of attention from the media when it comes to perception management and disinformation campaigns, China’s efforts have arguably been far further reaching and effective. China’s state-sponsored influence campaigns tend not to draw the same negative attention as Russia’s more nefarious seeming efforts for two reasons: China works hard to maintain a positive foreign image, and China’s influence often comes disguised as big bags of money.
Blockbuster movies of the modern era are increasingly aimed at Chinese, rather than American audiences, and as a result of the Chinese government’s censorship policies, Hollywood can only release movies in Chinese markets that have been approved by the nation’s government. That not only means ensuring China is always shown in a positive light at the cinema, but often, it means changing entire story elements, plot points, and even characters to inject China into non-Chinese stories. Here in America, we may not always notice that Captain America always uses cell phones that are only available on Chinese markets, or that the 2012 Red Dawn remake digitally removed all references to China and changed the entire plot in post-production to appease Chinese officials… but over years, this steady supply of Chinese controlled messaging will manifest in perceptions about the nation.
If you don’t believe that’s possible, you might want to do a Google search on why parents tell their kids carrots are good for their vision, or why diamond rings are considered an essential part of the Western (and increasingly, Eastern) marriage rituals. Like so many parts of our culture, these beliefs were not cultivated from longstanding tradition or science, but rather through carefully crafted and entirely intentional messaging initiatives.
Which brings us to the latest NBA debacle, which for those not in the know, can be summed up rather quickly: Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet over the weekend that expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. His tweet read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” and China immediately responded using the very leverage its been cultivating in the United States for years: money.
The Chinese Basketball Association immediately announced that it would suspend all cooperation with the team Morey works for, Tencent Sports (China based) announced that they would no longer stream the Rocket’s games — a move that was also matched by CCTV 5, China’s top state-owned broadcasting station. Chinese owned sponsors distanced themselves from the team, and suddenly, the Rockets found themselves likely about to miss out on the nearly 500 million people that tune in to NBA games from China each year.
In a very real way, China, through its complex web of state-owned and state-backed corporations, placed a huge financial burden on the basketball team over the political opinion of its general manager — and it didn’t take long before the NBA stepped in… to apologize to China for anyone in their organization believing that that residents of Hong Kong should have the right to protest in favor of democracy and publicly expressing that opinion.
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a statement. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Tilman Fertitta, owner of the Houston Rockets also came out to denounce the GM’s statement in support of the Hong Kong protests, writing on Twitter that Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,”
Morley’s tweet was deleted and replaced with a new one backpeddling on his previous support for the protestors and instead expressing his gratitude to Chinese fans.
1/ I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
Houston Rockets star James Harden also took to Twitter to express his apologies and love for the Chinese regime.
“We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there,” Harden said. “For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love.”
Even in the politically heated environment of the United States, where lawmakers from the ideological Left and Right rarely see eye to eye on anything, it seemed both sides could agree that the NBA and the Houston Rockets had clearly backed down to Chinese pressure.
“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” said Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas that’s currently running for the party’s presidential nomination. It’s hard to find any Republican that will publicly agree with O’Rourke since he started campaigning on the idea of mandatory “assault weapon buybacks,” but on this subject, he soon found himself in agreement with a number of conservatives.
“It’s clear that the NBA is more interested in money than human rights,” said Senator Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, on Twitter. “The NBA is kowtowing to Beijing to protect their bottom line and disavowing those with the temerity to #standwithHongKong. Shameful!”