Its history of bullying other countries and foreign companies backfired when it tried to do the same to the US National Basketball Association, suggests Minxin Pei.
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.
An example is China’s recent effort to bully America’s National Basketball Association (NBA). The row began when the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted (and quickly deleted) support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, saying: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
China’s government blacklisted the Rockets; ordered the state-run television network to cancel broadcasts of two NBA pre-game 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 and apologise for offending the Communist Party of China (CPC).
And, initially, the NBA did just that.
But that attempt to kowtow to China sparked outrage among US 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, Senator 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 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 US, and a powerful example of Sino-American ‘sports diplomacy’.
Such diplomacy has a storied history in US-China relations. During the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, US 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 exchanged gifts, an act of goodwill that garnered significant positive media attention.
Recognising the diplomatic opportunity, Mao Zedong invited the US team to China. The widely publicised trip opened the way for the two governments to begin back-channel communications and, eventually, to normalise bilateral relations.
Mao and then US president Richard Nixon did not squander the opportunity. But, by picking a fight with the NBA, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s government might have. At a time when Sino-American relations are in freefall, this is the last thing China needs. China’s response was probably hubris.
The government has effortlessly bullied some of the world’s largest companies into submission for offending 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 UK when they hosted the Dalai Lama.
Similarly, after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, China suspended salmon imports from Norway. China got its way in these showdowns, with Western actors expressing remorse.
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 modus operandi — ‘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 favour with CPC superiors.
With intimidation hardwired into the Chinese system, such self-defeating behaviour is likely to continue and to cost the CPC dearly. The more friends China turns into enemies, the easier it will be for the US to assemble a broad coalition to contain its power and ambitions.
- Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US.