There’s a reason China has long referred to itself as The Middle Kingdom, and Daryl Morey, the NBA and frankly much of Western Civilization is beginning to understand why.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, Morey is the general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets and, until last week, he was known primarily as one of the league’s most savvy operators, an early, successful adopter of advanced hoop metrics and a keen, innovative judge of talent in a league turning inside-out (read: the NBA’s new, stat-backed reliance on 3-point shooting). He’s also politically aware, apparently, something he exhibited last Friday when he tweeted his support of Hong Kong protesters in their running battle with China’s central government. “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” he wrote.
Well, with that seemingly innocuous digital bromide (the political equivalent of “Boston Strong”), Morey has pissed off that central government, in Beijing. In the process, he may have inadvertently clued much of America into the fact that the unilateral, post-Cold War Era is over.
Morey has since taken the Tweet down but he, the Rockets and the NBA have reaped the 21st century whirlwind.
In response, the Chinese Central Government has announced that Rockets games will no longer be broadcast by Chinese state TV or partner Tencent, which recently agreed to a $1.5-billion deal with the NBA to stream games in China. Last year, some 600 million Chinese watched an NBA game in this fashion. The Rockets themselves just happen to have been the most popular team in the country — mainly because Yao Ming, China’s most successful NBA product, played his entire career in Houston. Today Yao is head of the Chinese Basketball Association. On Monday he severed the CBA’s relationship with his former team.
What we see here is an illustration of why China is known to itself (and to every other historical culture in Asia) as the Middle Kingdom. China so named itself circa 1,000 BCE, when the reigning Chou people, unaware of advanced civilizations in the West, believed their empire occupied the middle of the Earth, surrounded by unsophisticated barbarians.
For the ensuing 3,000 years China has indeed been the center of the universe in Asia, such has it dominated economic and cultural affairs in this region — in a way that has no European, African, Middle Eastern, South or North American analogue really. In Asia, over this long arc of history, China’s military whims were routinely indulged. Its culture effortlessly spilled over into countless neighboring nations. Its outsized market (always a function of its outsized population) routinely bent foreign states to China’s economic will.
North Americas and Europeans have a difficult time grasping this concept — the enormity of China’s power — because recent history doesn’t bear this primacy out. Starting in the mid 1800s (when the English first acquired Hong Kong and its holdings in the Pearl River Delta) and ending with Mao’s victory over nationalist forces in 1949, China was something of a geopolitical and economic pushover.
Here’s the way I’ve always thought of it: China had a bad century. The Chinese call it a “Century of Humiliation”… But one or two bad centuries in 30 isn’t such a terrible batting average. In any case, that blip is over. Its recent “rise” is merely a reinstatement of a longstanding status quo.
On account of its still-outsized consumer market, China can effectively dictate to the Rockets and Daryl Morey. An NBA franchise is like any other business: In many ways it cannot afford NOT to be in China. (Versace, Calvin Klein, Marriott and the Gap have all apologized of late for listing Chinese territories, including Hong Kong and Tibet, as independent countries on their Web sites or their clothing. Last year, facing economic pressure from Beijing, Delta, American and United airlines all removed from their web sites references to Taiwan as an independent country.)
You’ll recall that Enes Kanter, a Turkish national now playing for the Celtics, is locked in a running, public battle of words and ideas with Turkish president Recep Erdogan. The NBA has consistently backed Kanter — not just what he says but his right to say it. Fortunately, for Kanter, Turkey doesn’t possess but a fraction of the consumers China does. Kanter played last year for the Portland Trail Blazers; Erdogan apparently blocked the transmission of all Blazer games in Turkey. That was revenue the NBA was not bothered to forfeit, in order to protect Kanter’s right to free expression.
To his credit, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has so far similarly attempted to protect Morey’s right to speak his mind, while respecting China’s right to take offense. The NBA has built a portion of its prevailing brand on the vocal, progressive politics of its players. But ultimately this balancing act is likely to cost the league a lot of money.
As a franchise, the Rockets have gone the other way, into obsequious mode. Get a load of Morey’s apology:
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.
I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
To this point, Morey and the Rockets — as smaller, more vulnerable economic entities — have bowed completely to the consumer power China represents. So has Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, known in China as the man behind Jack Ma, the founder of the Ali Baba Group, the Chinese Amazon. Tsai posted over the weekend a lengthy open letter on Facebook referring to the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as a “separatist movement.” We know where he stands.
When my family lived in Vietnam during 2009, we traveled together all over the region. When we arrived in Beijing, we were struck by many things: its gargantuan size; its extraordinary diversity of food, entertainment and architecture; its terrible air quality; and the monolingual nature of its cabbies. This last point is surprisingly germane. By this time, we had been to Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Bali, Siem Reap and myriad points across Vietnam. Pretty much everywhere we went, taxi drivers knew just enough English (or we knew just enough Thai or Vietnamese) to pigeon our way through a transaction. Not so in Beijing. We were advised (quite accurately) to get our desired address written down (by someone at the hotel front desk) in Chinese, so that we might hand it to the driver and reach our destination successfully.
The Middle Kingdom does not cater to tourists. Tourists cater to the Middle Kingdom.
The same could be said of any commercial enterprise that aspires to do business in China. I was chatting this week with a U.S.-based journalist who had recently returned from Shanghai. This guy is also well traveled (including stints behind the Iron Curtain during the 1970s), but he came away a bit shocked by the lack of English spoken in Chinese cabs, restaurants and hotels. I asked him a question: If you were from Shanghai and you tried hailing/directing a cab in Chicago, would you be shocked or perhaps put off if your driver didn’t speak Mandarin?
We products of Western European culture were all raised during a period of global history when English was the lingua franca (to badly mix a metaphor), when American economic and military might dictate terms on guns and butter, when all the nations of the world were somewhat obliged to speak a bit of OUR language in order to make nice.
In the context of 3,000 years, this is another blip. Things are changing. The bad century is over. So far as China is concerned (along with every other nation whose long-term history intersects with that of the Middle Kingdom) this doesn’t represent such radical change. Things are getting back to normal.