What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
Being an American, I can tell you one of our most annoying qualities to non-Americans is our amazing lack of knowledge of places outside our own country. To be fair, I understand why that is. After all, there’s two gigantic oceans between us and most of the rest of the world, and our continental neighbors are mostly English-speaking white people or Spanish-speaking Latinos, two groups together which comprise at least 80% of the United States’ population anyway. In other words, the average American looks at the rest of the world in the same way they look at a commercial for a pizza chain that doesn’t have a franchise where they live. They think they understand it, but they really don’t.
A perfect example of this can be seen in the ESPN coverage of the blow-up between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Chinese government. In case you live under a rock in a cave on the dark side of the moon which only gets service from Comcast, what was supposed to be a pre-season long love-fest between the NBA and the gigantic, basketball-hungry Chinese market is rapidly burning up faster than cheap, black-market fireworks.
At the core of the conflagration is the fact that a NBA official tweeted a statement of support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. As I’ve been watching ESPN’s coverage of this story and it became brutally apparent to me that the people covering this story are doing so under some huge misunderstandings about China and the Chinese people. I know this because when I’m not being a blogger, I am part of a small business partnership involved in the manufacture and sale of model railroad vehicles; the vast majority of which we make in China. Between myself and my partners, I can’t tell you how many trips we’ve made to China and how much interaction we’ve had with the Chinese in over a decade of doing business with them. As I break down some of those misconceptions, you can easily see how they change the way you should view the relationship between the Chinese government and the NBA.
1) The Chinese Central Government Is Not As Strong As Most Westerners Believe
When it comes to business, the individual provinces have a lot more power than most people would think. This is particularly true in southern China, especially in places like Guangdong province. If you are a manufacturer, you will discover this difference rather quickly if you move your operation between provinces. Even though they are adjacent, there are huge differences you will encounter doing business in Guangdong versus Guangxi.
This fact may be of limited importance at this juncture because the Chinese Central Government has already taken the lead in the response to the NBA. But later when this blows over, the interest in basketball amongst the Chinese population will drive a return of the NBA; the pace of that return may very well be driven by the provinces. That difference will become important later, especially when it comes to the cost of doing business in China. .
2) The Chinese Have A Huge Sense Of Patriotism
You can see this from the minute you get off the plane in China. This is a country now at least in the urban centers which is very modern and very vibrant. Across the board, the Chinese are very proud of where their nation is today, which isn’t surprising considering the last five centuries of Chinese history involve a lot of being invaded, occupied, colonized, and sub-divided…all of which was capped with the bloodiest civil war the world has ever seen.
One of the peculiar features of the Chinese civil war was that it had a de facto intermission. The Communists and the Nationalists pushed the “pause” button” on their war when the Japanese invaded China in the 1930’s. After the defeat of Japan at the end of the Second World War, the anti-Japanese alliance between the Communists and the Nationalists quickly dissolved, and the battle for control of China was on again.
In other words, when Mao Zedong declared the establishment of Communist China in 1949, he was proclaiming the birth of a nation which was largely comprised of subsistence farmers and giant piles of dusty, blood-stained rubble.
As such, the Chinese in general will react viscerally to any criticism of their country, especially given the nearly-complete catastrophe the Mao years were. When you combine the relatively recent rise of the urban Chinese landscape with the long-held belief that places like Hong Kong, Macau, and Formosa are “rightfully” Chinese territory, you can see why the Chinese don’t take well to outside criticism.
3) Not All Chinese Are Against The Government
This is where I’m going to get a lot of “hate mail,” but one of the major reasons why the democracy movement of the late 1980’s failed in China was because it did not have enough support amongst the general population. Americans…especially those of my age who grew up on too many WWII “America Makes The World Safe For Democracy” movies…simply can’t understand the idea that not everybody is ready for democracy. The very same people who couldn’t understand why democracy failed in Russia after 75 years of communism also don’t get the idea that a vast number of the Chinese general population isn’t in a big hurry for sweeping change.
There’s two things you have to understand here. First, before the aforementioned five centuries of various forms of foreign domination, Chinese history is loaded to the brim with dynastic rule. It is not a stretch to go from emperors to communists when oligarchy has existed so long it’s ingrained in the culture.
The second thing is that America was built by people fleeing various forms of oppression in other places. That’s why Americans hold their freedoms so dear; they weren’t easy to get. Excepting the people who didn’t have the ability to leave, for every person who left the “old” world for a new life in America, there was one that stayed because the “old” life was just fine for them.
As far as China is concerned, the student protests of 1989 failed because there were far too many of the general population who for one reason or another didn’t support them. That why the government got away with the massacre in Tienanmen Square; they knew it wouldn’t spark a revolution. That same year, we saw the exact opposite in Romania. As communism was crumbling all around the world, Nicolae Ceaucescu tried to hang on to power by sending the tanks into the streets.
A week later, his bones were bleaching in the sun.
4) Chinese “Communism” Isn’t Going Anywhere Anytime Soon
Take everything I just said in point #3 and add the fact that what we call “Chinese Communism” has undergone some seriously transformative events since Mao’s declaration of the communist state in 1949. The first was the death of Mao himself in 1976, which ended his rule via “cult of personality,” which thus ended the most egregious abuses in the name of attaining “pure” communism, such as “The Cultural Revolution” or “The Great Leap Forward,” both of which combined to result in the deaths of millions of people.
What really matters here is what has happened in China since 1976. Gone are the days of mass starvation, having been replaced by a rising tide of prosperity. The standard of living for the average Chinese citizen has gone up dramatically in the last half-century. The force driving that is the abandonment of the pursuit of “pure,” Marxist communism, and the embrace of market economics, albeit in a controlled manner which would have seemed more at home in 1938 Berlin rather than 1980 Moscow.
The return of Hong Kong from British rule in 1997 only drove the Chinese further toward what I like to call “authoritarian capitalism,” meaning market economics, if not heavily regulated and/or partially or completely owned by the government. Nearly a quarter-century later, that progression continues. In only thirteen years after the death of Mao, the progress was enough to help stop a revolution. What do you think three more decades of progress will do?
5) What This Is Really All About
This one might be the hardest to explain, and it’s probably going to get me even more “hate mail,” but it lies at the heart of this whole situation.
You have to understand what this is really all about; crime and the treatment of criminals. There was a piece of legislation introduced over the summer in Hong Kong which proposed the ability to extradite criminal suspects back to China. This is what sparked the protests in Hong Kong because China is not a great place to be a criminal.
The problem comes in at the point where the Chinese criminalized opposition to the government. Most of the people China wants extradited back from Hong Kong aren’t robbers or murderers…they are political dissidents. Once you understand that, it’s not hard to understand why this sparked pro-democracy protests.
Now for the part that’s going to get me the “hate mail…”
At least the Chinese are honest about who they oppress. If you are an opponent of the government, China isn’t a great place for you. In America, we have a politically-correct culture that preaches tolerance and inclusion while it “Twitter mobs” and “doxxes” people who don’t toe the party line. These are the same people who want to criminalize not believing in man-made climate change while claiming they support free speech.
Why that matters in this case is a large number of people who cry the loudest about Chinese human rights violations share their totalitarian views, which only served to exacerbate the “rock and a hard place” position Adam Silver got himself into. Once the pro-democracy tweets got out, Silver had to have realized he got the calculus on this all wrong. When he chose to do business with the Chinese at a time when they are trying to pressure Hong Kong into handing over political dissidents, it never occurred to him he could be putting himself in a position to cow-tow to a government which actively seeks to silence its opposition.
Anybody who did their homework (which the NBA and the media clearly didn’t) on what the Chinese are all about couldn’t have been surprised at their reaction to the critical tweets. But what has to drive Silver out of his mind is the people in his very own camp who loudly bemoaned a perceived threat to democracy in America stayed silent on an actual threat to democracy in Hong Kong, which because of our current political climate only increased the heat under this whole situation.
It all boils down to this. There’s a large group of people in America today whose political modus operandi is to accuse their opponents of that which they themselves are actually doing. In other words, there are people in this country who really don’t believe in democracy, which explains the people who bad-mouth America yet stay silent about China.
Keep that “keeping things political” angle in mind as you read the final point…
6) There’s Way Too Much Money Involved For Anybody To Walk Away
The American media has been doing a “Chicken Little” routine over a possible trade war with China. That’s not going to happen. The sports media is acting like this might mean the end of the NBA in China. That’s not going to happen either. Say what you will, but the NBA and a potential market of 700 million viewers or Sino-American trade in general has far too much revenue-generation potential that nobody is walking away from it anytime soon.
That’s the problem which gets created when one only looks at this through a purely political lens, because once you do that, you’re missing some important perspective. Once the discussion becomes all about politics, everything gets locked into binary constructs; everything becomes about capitalism/free markets vs. communism/centralized economies, “free trade” vs. tariffs/protectionism, and in America, Pro-Trump vs. Anti-Trump. I know it’s hard to mention the “T” word without the long political knives coming out on both sides, but that’s where we are going.
No matter the perspective from which you want to attack this issue, there’s two over-arching facts in all of this which are undeniable.
A common drum-beat is the Chinese engage in unfair trade practices. That’s just code for the fact that for years, Chinese have been sticking it to American politicians who don’t have the guts and/or the ability to play hard-ball. Going all the way back to the first Bush administration, we’ve been training the Chinese that American politicians will misplace priorities; they will try to do business in a political games and vice versa.
That’s exactly why they’ve played Adam Silver for a fool. They knew he wasn’t a shrewd business man, they knew he had no idea how deep the water was, and they knew thanks to Silver’s toleration of “free speech,” he was very likely to find himself in a position of having his own people weaken his bargaining position. Don’t even try to tell me the Chinese didn’t know that in a world where everybody has an opinion , those same people have access to social media, and Adam Silver has committed not to mandate his own people to “toe the company line” that they were only one or two tweets away from being able to take Silver’s knees out from underneath him.
In this case, the “unfair trade practice” was the Chinese beat the Americans at their own game. In the middle of the game, they quit playing a business game, and started playing by political rules. Once they did that, they could use Silver’s own politics against him, and they did it to perfection.
It would be the tallest of orders to convince me the Chinese didn’t have this planned. Their response was far too swift and coordinated. They set Silver up, and took him straight down, thus ensuring they will get the biggest part of the eventual NBA-China pie. Don’t forget that nobody is walking away from the billions of dollars on the table here; this is all about who gets what. Not only did they clearly establish themselves as the side which will drive the terms in any future discussions, they also get to set the price of doing business.
Not only are the Chinese honest about who they oppress, they make no pretense about bribery. Tossing cash at a government official to get things done is not only out in the open, it is really accepted as part of doing business. In other words, not only did the price of the NBA doing business in China go up, the price of even getting a seat at the negotiation table went up as well.
Here’s the best part. The one guy who could get Silver out this situation is also the one cut-throat businessman the Chinese know they can’t bully. But thanks to Silver’s allowing his people to vent political opinions, the Trump cavalry isn’t coming over the hill anytime soon to save Silver and the NBA .
P.S. I foreshadowed Commissioner Nosferatu having problems like this a while ago…
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