Do you hear the people sing?

Coronavirus has China clamoring for free speech; the NBA could own the issue.


NBA Commissioner Adam Silver could never have seen it coming. Through a crazy series of events last fall, somehow he, an American sports executive, starred in a global brouhaha over the freedom of speech in the wake of Daryl Morey’s infamous, now deleted, tweet

In the months since, the league has lived in some bizarro middle ground: 

  • In Silver’s estimation, the league is giving up hundreds of millions of dollars (in lost revenues from CCTV and other partners in China), perhaps the world’s biggest ever cash penalty for promoting and defending free speech.

  • Without promoting and defending free speech in any meaningful way. 

But! A surprise: Right now China is, more than in any modern time, upending assumptions about freedom of speech because of the coronavirus. Could this be an opportunity for the NBA to seize the initiative?

Silver is generally a careful speaker. Almost every talk begins with thanking a list of dignitaries, and his word choice is law-school-persnickety throughout. He doesn’t often start fights, and didn’t this time. Silver didn’t express support for protests in Hong Kong, or even, publicly, for Morey—who, motivated by forces unseen, quickly deleted his tweet and even apologized for it. Morey’s boss, Rockets governor Tilman Fertitta, clarified that Morey didn’t speak for the Rockets. In a statement in Mandarin, the NBA said they were “greatly disappointed” in Morey; they later said the less apologetic English-language statement was the real one.

But while Silver has stood by Morey in a manner—there are ways in which he has kept his distance. For the first time since 2012 [CORRECTION: Silver didn’t attend in 2016 or 2018] I noticed, Silver is not on the agenda for Morey’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference scheduled for later this week. When Nets owner Joe Tsai released a statement that went to extremes in positioning the protests as foreign meddling (“[Tsai] really followed the lines of the official Chinese Communist Party position on this subject very closely,” the director of the director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, Steve Tsang, told Bloomberg Businessweek.), Silver said he also supported that, more recently adding that he hadn’t read it in advance

Instead, Silver took the most gentle possible American position, stirring in a teaspoon of Thomas Jefferson: He said that the NBA values the freedom of speech. And, importantly, he and the Rockets did not immediately accede to a request from Beijing to fire the Rockets GM for one short-lived tweet in support for Hong Kong protestors. For now, Morey is on the job, enjoying the protection of the NBA. However, it’s unclear how meaningful that position will prove to be. Many around the NBA suggest Beijing effectively succeeded—that Morey’s running out the clock, the delay largely for optics, so the NBA doesn’t look like it’s taking orders from overseas. (One well-positioned source takes the extreme position that Morey will never work in the NBA again.) 

In the aftermath, Silver said that the China event has cost the NBA steeply, but he recently told reporters at All-Star weekend, “probably less than $400 million.” He added “I don’t have any sense that there’s any permanent damage to our business there, and as I’ve said before, we accept the consequences of our system and our values.”

On December 30, an opthalmologist in Wuhan province, Dr. Li Wenliang, sent a private message to friends from medical school, noting his worry about a SARS-like virus, and urging them to take care. At that time, coronavirus was not identified or well understood. Nor is it clear how authorities knew the message existed. Within days, Dr. Li was one of a group of healthcare providers who were hauled in by the police for “making false comments” that “disturbed the social order.” He was forced to sign a statement denouncing his warnings to friends. In a move that was widely taken as a sign this all happened with Beijing’s approval, China’s state-owned media channel broadcast the reprimand. 

There would be terrible milestones in the weeks to follow. On January 7, it was announced that Wuhan had a novel coronavirus. Four days later: the first announced death. Soon, Lunar New Year celebrations were canceled, then the Wuhan airport and train stations were closed. People with symptoms found hospitals didn’t have enough beds. Some were told to stay home, others were put up in hotels. There are photos of patients receiving IV fluids while standing, because the chairs and beds were all full. In some cases, the floors of sports centers were covered in side by side cots. 

Dr. Li began to show symptoms himself, and eventually tested positive for coronavirus. He did many interviews from his hospital bed. On February 4, the Diamond Princess cruise ship confirmed cases of coronavirus onboard, a signal that nobody knew exactly how far the virus might spread. On February 7, Dr. Li died, and China erupted. According to Li Yuan of The New York Times, the scope and depth of the reaction has been unprecedented, angry, and focused on the freedom of speech. These kinds of quotes aren’t typical:

“I haven’t seen my WeChat timeline filled with so much forlornness and outrage,” Xu Danei, founder of a social media analytics company, wrote on the messaging platform WeChat.


“It’s time to reflect on the deeply rooted, stability-trumps-everything thinking that’s hurt everyone,” Wang Ran, chairman of the investment bank CEC Capital, wrote on Weibo. 

Dr. Li stirred things up. Even though the hashtag is banned, and systematically deleted after being posted, #wewantfreedomofspeech trended for a few hours on Chinese social media. The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin was recently expelled from China after being part of a team that did an extraordinary job telling true stories about the early days of coronavirus, and has another interesting insight:

The threat of pandemic has unleashed unprecedented talk about the value of freedom of speech. To many, it feels dire. On the Guardian’s opinion page, Hong Kong-based journalist Verna Yu writes:

If Li had lived in a society where citizens could speak freely without fear of being punished for exposing problems the authorities would rather not see, and if his warning had been heeded and action swiftly taken, the virus could have been contained. Instead, it has already killed at least 724 and infected nearly 35,000 people, and the virus is still spreading.

Unless Chinese citizens’ freedom of speech and other basic rights are respected, such crises will only happen again. With a more globalised world, the magnitude may become even greater – the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak is already comparable to the total Sars death toll.

Human rights in China may appear to have little to do with the rest of the world but as we have seen in this crisis, disaster could occur when China thwarts the freedoms of its citizens. Surely it is time the international community takes this issue more seriously.

The Times article notes that the current crisis has prompted many among the Chinese elite—executives, professors—to voice concerns about China’s lack of freedom of speech. It seems to matter tremendously that some of those protesting for freedom of speech after Dr. Li’s death sang the same song as Hong Kong protestors: “Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men,” from Les Miserables. The people of Hong Kong were alleged to be separatists. If people across China are singing along, it’s starting to feel like one common urge, for Beijing to loosen its grip. 

Thor Halverson of the Human Rights Foundation recently emailed that, because of coronavirus, this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum would be canceled. Then he added:

Dictatorial regimes limit freedom of expression, promote blind obedience to the government, and discourage transparency and accountability. Regimes falsify and even fabricate health statistics, in their constant efforts to paint false realities and hide difficult societal truths.

HRF believes that the current global health emergency is a powerful reminder of how authoritarian regimes, which rule almost half of the world’s countries, pose a serious threat to global peace and prosperity.  

At the All-Star game, Silver suggested the league might have a humanitarian response to the outbreak of coronavirus in China. I wonder if the league might be willing to think outside the box. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos points out that U.S. media companies have been using flawed theories in bringing Western freedoms to China. 

Judd Apatow, the filmmaker and comedian, told me that Americans intended to introduce freedom to China, but instead traded it for Chinese money. “I think it happened very slowly and insidiously,” he said. “You would not see a major film company or studio make a movie that has story lines which are critical of countries with major markets or investors. The question becomes: what’s the result of all of this? The result is, there are a million or more Muslims in reëducation camps in China, and you don’t really hear much about it.”

In October, Quentin Tarantino refused to modify the Chinese version of his film “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” after relatives of the late martial-arts star Bruce Lee complained about an unflattering portrayal of him, so China cancelled its release. Apatow said, “Quentin Tarantino is successful enough, and has the power and final cut, but very few people are in that position of strength. What you don’t hear about is all of the ideas that get killed at the earliest pitch stage, at all of the studios and networks, because people don’t even want to consider dealing with it.”

Accepting censorship for profit rests on the tempting logic that reaching Chinese buyers with a bowdlerized portrait of the world is better than not reaching them at all. In fact, censored imports have helped acclimate Chinese citizens to a parallel reality, in which Freddie Mercury was not gay, and in which nobody in the N.B.A. cares about Hong Kong. When Chinese consumers erupt at something like Daryl Morey’s tweet, it indicates not a growing awareness of what the rest of the world thinks but a growing seclusion from it.

[Bolding by TrueHoop]

Perhaps somewhere in there is an opportunity for the NBA to channel its inner Tarantino to nudge things along. 

To one way of thinking, Beijing’s power is as omnipresent as the weather—the only task is to work around it.

To another way of thinking, change is afoot. Modern China has never been more primed to hear about personal freedoms generally, and freedom of speech specifically. If the league is hoping for freedom of speech, that’s one thing. But if they stand for it, now’s their chance to prove it. 

It could take 100 forms. Imagine how incredible it would be to see courageous current NBA stars talk earnestly into the camera about the importance of Dr. Li, the freedom of speech, love, compassion, and saving lives. Can an animated NBA player demonstrate proper handwashing technique? Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have talked openly about the value of freedom of speech; will the NBA dare to feature and promote that? Imagine if Daryl Morey weren’t the lone NBA figure to voice support of everyday American values overseas. Imagine what the finest ad agencies could do with Adam Silver’s treasure trove of basketball footage. Everyone from Bill Russell to Kobe Bryant is in there kicking ass and enjoying real freedom of speech.

It would be a big departure. The league has been assiduously courting CCTV (according to Bloomberg Businessweek a “state-controlled propaganda arm”) since the network reportedly made then-commissioner David Stern wait hours for a meeting in 1987. That’s the same CCTV that aired Dr. Li, as he was reprimanded by police. 

Silver’s assessment, as of his press conference a couple of weeks ago, is: “From the data we look at, there continues to be enormous interest for the NBA in China, and my sense is that there will be a return to normalcy fairly soon, but I can’t say exactly when, when it comes to CCTV.”

On the other hand, maybe the NBA can’t afford to be this far behind the hearts and minds of Chinese people already taking incredible risks in the name of Adam Silver’s purported non-negotiable issue of free speech. Maybe that would be a way for the NBA to protect its values, and to not just have partners in China, but to grow, to excite and motivate the next generation of NBA fans who might be tiring of the CCTV version of events.

How bad is the freedom of speech in China? There are many ways to assess, and many signs censorship is rampant and spreading. Last summer, Facebook and Twitter took down accounts deemed to be part of Chinese misinformation campaigns overseas. The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote in a recent report which includes:

  • “Beijing’s range of methods include openly or surreptitiously taking ownership of media properties; exerting influence through media owners with strong, unrelated, commercial interests in China; manipulating social media; outright propaganda; economic retaliation; and intimidating journalists.”

  • “Journalists have been caught up in the fray, and police have targeted them with beatings, blinding lights, tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.”

  • “According to the minutes, China offered to bug the homes and office of [Wall Street] Journal reporters in Hong Kong, the Journal reported. ...  ‘Mr. Sun says that they will establish all links that WSJ HK has with Malaysia-related individuals and will hand over the wealth of data to Malaysia through ‘back-channels’ once everything is ready,’’ the summary reads. ‘‘It is then up to Malaysia to do the necessary.’’”

The report, which is worth a read, repeatedly mentions Alibaba, a giant retailer that succeeds with the blessing of the Chinese Communist Party. Alibaba has invested heavily in media, according to the CPJ: with chilling effects on free speech and honest reporting. 

Alibaba is also the source of Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai’s wealth. Commissioner Silver recently told Bloomberg Businessweek that adding Tsai to the NBA’s media committee was “a no brainer.” Tsai has said he is eager for the NBA to return to CCTV.

As reported by the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, Silver recently told a group in New York that “these American values—we are an American business—travel with us wherever we go.”

It sounds good, but is it true? Are the NBA’s values on display in China? 

The Times quotes 26-year-old Stephanie Xia of Shanghai, whose Weibo account has been suspended for her epidemic-related posts. She tells people to “speak up as much as your courage allows. In the end, it’s better than saying nothing.”

Later this week on TrueHoop: David on what NBA coaches can learn from SEAL Team Six. And, MIT Sloan insight from Henry.