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The sports world whiffs on China
Chamath Palihapitiya and the NBA take gold for muddled thinking
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BY HENRY ABBOTT
The 2022 Winter Olympics open today in Beijing—and suddenly the world is not sure how it feels about using sports to celebrate autocratic China. The U.S. has led a diplomatic boycott of the games; Congress has held hearings Nancy Pelosi is warning athletes against protesting the Chinese government, which she calls “ruthless.” ESPN recently reported that many of the sporting goods promoted by NBA players are likely made by forced Uyghur labor. Companies who paid a fortune to sponsor the games are reportedly keeping a low profile.
The brutality of China is hardly a new issue in the NBA. What’s new is an argument, as voiced by an NBA investor, that it’s wrong to care.
Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay. I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line.
—Warriors investor Chamath Palihapitiya on the All-In podcast
At some point in the pandemic, like a lot of people, my family started listening to Smartless, a podcast hosted by actors Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes. While it’s fun to learn that their good buddy Sandra Bullock makes a wicked charcuterie or that Melissa McCarthy gets up early to work in her vegetable garden, the real joy of the show is that the hosts and many of the guests are improv geniuses, socially deft, and able to create what pandemics miss most: clever little warm moments of connection. The meta-point of listening, at our house at least, is to delight in people being artfully decent.
The bizarro evil twin of Smartless is called All-In, and it twists the recipe with four hosts instead of three, billionaires in place of millionaires, and some very creepy and deep-seated meta-messages about how the world works. NBA fans first learned about All-In last month when the Warriors had to distance themselves from Palihapitiya’s comments, when he went to some trouble to clarify to his co-hosts Jason Calacanis, David Sacks, and David Friedberg the degree to which he doesn’t care about the Uyghurs.
It would have been so easy to say “I’ll be honest, I haven’t followed the Uyghur situation closely.” What made it newsy and brazen, I’d argue, was not Palihapitiya’s run-of-the-mill lack of care about things far away and out of mind. (Who among us does much of anything for the Uyghurs?) What was so brazen was Palihapitiya’s raising of the issue to discard it. Driving by accidents without stopping isn’t unusual. What’s weird is pulling over to insist it’s correct that you don’t help.
That’s a dick move.
During the show, Palihapitiya also said that he has accepted investments from China. At a glance it read like chapter … 14 maybe? … of a long book of the NBA putting its thoughts about human rights aside in deference to the powerful business interests of Beijing.
Once this latest controversy arrived, the Warriors released a very bossy statement noting that “Mr. Palihapitiya does not speak on behalf of our franchise, and his views certainly don’t reflect those of our organization.”
But have the Warriors called out China for its treatment of the Uyghurs, or anything? (On this one, the Warriors are not warriors.)
Once upon a time the NBA was a place where people were free to criticize the powerful. Then the Chinese Communist Party taught the NBA a half-billionish-dollar lesson in response to Daryl Morey’s unremarkable tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors. (The NBA announced $400 million in losses some time ago; the losses are ongoing.) Nowadays right-wing politicians and half of Twitter tattoo the NBA as beholden to Beijing. Adam Silver has made comments about American ideals that apply globally–even though they’re not well articulated. Listen to the whole All-In episode, and you’ll hear Palihapitiya taking another position—that the compassionate are out to lunch, imposing their “personal beliefs” where they don’t belong.
A detainee is believed to have died as a result of being restrained in a tiger chair, in front of his cellmates, for 72 hours, during which time he urinated and defecated on himself.
I thought I could use a little refresher on what’s happening with the Uyghurs. This American Life has a powerful, detailed, and specific first-hand account of a Uyghur family’s experience. A leak to the New York Times documents secret meetings where Beijing’s highest leadership, including Xi Jinping set the course for mass incarcerations and one of the biggest surveillance programs in history.
43 nations, including the US, released a statement last year:
Credible-based reports indicate the existence of a large network of “political re-education” camps where over a million people have been arbitrarily detained. We have seen an increasing number of reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations, including reports documenting torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children. There are severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association and expression as well as on Uyghur culture. Widespread surveillance disproportionately continues to target Uyghurs and members of other minorities.
Mike Fish and Michael A. Fletcher recently reported on ESPN.com that many NBA players promote brands that have products made with forced labor in Xinjiang province:
"Shame on the athletes that are aware of what is happening—who have affiliations with brands that get Xinjiang cotton," Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, told ESPN. "And we don't use the word genocide lightly. ... It is a genocide."
I am not suggesting there’s a simple fix here, or that Palihapitiya is causing this suffering. (What should be done is a whole ‘nother topic—I’m a big fan of Joshua Greene’s book Moral Tribes, which explores these issues.) What’s scary to me about Palihapitiya’s comments is they promote the idea that it’s dumb to care. It’s a small impulse, the me-me-me of the playground, dressed up as high-minded thinking.
Later, Palihapitiya apologized, noting that he had “come across as lacking empathy” … after an hourish-long discourse against deploying empathy in business.
Palihapitiya also said something else in that same podcast episode that didn’t get as much attention: “This [Uyghur] issue may be small data points extrapolated in a way to create a narrative that may not be true.”
May. Not. Be. True? Palihapitya’s in exceedingly high definition and a cashmere cardigan, well lit in front of a lush private courtyard. Say it to the guy in the tiger chair, you know what I’m saying? Later he says “I’m not going to be an armchair journalist on that topic, I’m not going to be an armchair human rights advocate, because I just don’t know.”
But a man just named one of the most politically influential donors in Silicon Valley does not hang back on many issues. As long as you’re stuck in an armchair, why direct people’s thinking about the Uyghurs at all?
It’d be one thing to avoid China entirely. Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton suggests that “Palihapitiya’s comments seem to represent a uniquely Silicon Valley viewpoint.”
An investigation by The Information last year found that seven of Apple’s tech suppliers might have used forced labor from programs with suspected ties to China’s alleged persecution of the Uyghurs. Another report from Reuters discovered that a U.S. electronics company had “struck a deal with authorities in Xinjiang to transport hundreds of Uyghur workers to its plant in the southern Chinese city of Qinzhou.” (Per Reuters, a company spokeswoman said the firm “treated them the same as other workers in China,” adding that “it did not regard any of its employees as forced labor.”) Facebook has also turned the other way when it comes to the plight of the Uyghurs; last year the social network allowed China to run state ads that denied the abuse of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Read the rest of this post, with a very NBA question: Should you take money from China?