On October 4, 2019, the NBA’s Houston Rockets’ GM tweeted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Pointing to Morey’s words on my iPhone, I said to a friend, “The NBA has a big China problem now!” He responded, “Morey is right! Americans should exercise their free-speech rights and support the people of Hong Kong.”
We both were right….
As I predicted, A storm of controversy quickly resulted. The Chinese Communist Party immediately retaliated, removing NBA games off the air. Chinese consumers soon followed, boycotting Rockets and NBA products. The league’s U.S. partners swiftly moved into protective mode, having seen this story unfold before.
Nike was one of those. They knew the playbook. In 2004, the CCP declared Nike’s “ads were an insult to the country’s national dignity,” responding to a “Chamber of Fear” campaign wherein LeBron James competed against a Kung Fu master and dragons, both sacred symbols in China, and won. “The ad received an indignant response from Chinese viewers,” the CCP added. The campaign abruptly disappeared, setting Nike, LeBron, and the NBA backwards in a market they coveted. Greatly humbled, Nike apologized, stating, “We respect and follow the Chinese government’s laws and regulations.”
Morey’s mishap felt eerily familiar. The kind that puts pits in stomachs of C-suite executives everywhere. Though in 2004, the CCP’s ire led to censoring Nike within China’s borders. With Morey, it was different. The CCP punished the NBA for words said on American soil, an extension of control much more concerning.
The next day revealed another surprise. One that proved my friend’s point. Capitalism’s problem wasn’t relegated just to China. Americans suddenly “woke” to the rampant CCP pandering by our beloved sports league. Morey’s tweet was a broom to a hornets’ nest. Amplifying the drama, Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba co-founder, Joseph Tsai, hit the angry hive again, stating, “Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues.” Then the likes of Adam Silver, LeBron, Steve Kerr, and others piled-on to the public relations nightmare via misstatements, or, in some cases, ill-advised silence. And no one in the NBA family publicly supported Morey, his support for Hong Kong, or his First Amendment rights, and they have been deathly quiet on the subject ever since. In other words, the CCP won.
Turned out the views of NBA brethren differed from those of many Americans. Morey’s spark ignited a flame that soon grew into a nuclear blast. And that explosion finally awakened me from my twenty-year, globalism-induced slumber. As stupid as it seems now, I was totally unaware of just how blindly complicit I was too. For two decades my colleagues and I aided the CCP by persuading Hollywood studios, the NBA, Nike, Under Armour, Robert Downey Jr., Bruce Willis, Kobe, LeBron, Michael Phelps, and others to carry the Party’s narrative both inside their borders and, eventually, beyond. Comply or be shut out of the market. That was the choice.
We encouraged filmmakers to portray China as the center of the world’s future in LOOPER, North Korea as the antagonist in RED DAWN rather than China, Shen Kuo as an earlier and more advanced scientist than his European counterparts in TRANSCENDENCE, a Chinese child, similar to that of Xi Jinping’s, as Tony Stark’s heroic accomplice in IRON MAN 3, China’s civil obedience by removing a crime-focused action sequence in POINT BREAK, and China’s state-of-the-art high speed rail system and scientific acumen in WORLD WAR Z. If the creatives agreed, the CCP gatekeepers would likely grant the altered films and responsible studios access to China’s 1.4 billion people. Big money was at stake.
“Every time you feed the Dragon, it grows stronger. It becomes more influential. It will only want more and more until you can’t stop it,” my wife warned in 2013.
Foolishly, I didn’t believe her. Globalism blinded me and those I worked with. We all had to open China by any means necessary. America’s leaders enforced the directive, and investors grew addicted to the endless revenue growth China’s market provided. There was no stopping us. What we were doing felt right, and if First Amendment rights were compromised, so be it.
The CCP understood their leverage well. So, they pressed, allowing access to their massive market, but with bigger strings attached each time. For movies, we edited offensive scenes for their market, no questions asked – a common practice for other countries in Asia and the Middle East, so why not China. But then, over time, those required edits started to expand in scope, but at least still within their borders. Eventually though, the CCP required their strict narrative to proliferate globally.
My wife was right. The Dragon demanded more and more, and America never pushed back. As a result, the most coveted rights of our nation, those of the First Amendment, were stolen from us. The reactions from all sides to Daryl Morey’s tweet proved such in the world of sports. And the misguided work of my career, as well as recent examples like the TOP GUN remake where the CCP required Paramount studios to remove the Taiwanese flag from the global cut of the film, proved it in Hollywood. And the latest CALL OF DUTY game, where the CCP forced Activision to remove a scene relating to the Tiananmen Square massacre, proved it in tech.
There is a solution though. Our great nation can push back. But it can’t just be LeBron or Silver standing up for Daryl Morey’s First Amendment rights. Nor can it rely on the CEO of Paramount or Activision on behalf of the protected creative freedoms granted to American filmmakers and game designers. They will just be replaced by the next silent athlete or another muted CEO. The lone wolf pushback effort simply creates sacrificial lambs in an endless game of Whac-A-Mole.
Instead, a unified approach will create the necessary leverage. It can be done because we are witnessing it now. The major sports leagues all came together in support of civil rights, so why can’t we do the same for First Amendment rights? An emissary like Nike founder, Phil Knight, could potentially orchestrate the effort on behalf of the sports world, entities such as the Motion Picture Association and PEN America could coordinate solidarity among the Hollywood entities, and a trailblazing sage like Bill Gates could do the same for tech. A united front comprised of sports leagues and studios, the International Olympic Committee, and various partners such as Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Activision, Hasbro, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and IMAX can create the strength in numbers to force the CCP to retreat.
Even better, the joined forces will prevent CCP retaliation. Whereas the disappearance of the NBA or TOP GUN may not rile their populace, the removal of almost every American sports, cultural, and technology product would. If there’s one thing the CCP wants to avoid, it’s an unhappy 1.4 billion people.
The bottom-line is Daryl Morey did us all a favor. He illuminated the kowtowing of American companies to the CCP with one simple tweet, proving the CCP’s threat to America’s First Amendment. The problem is fixable, and even better, the solution is realistic. Americans simply need to come together to address it. It comes down to strength in numbers.
America, #PatriotismBeforeCapitalism. Just Do It!
Chris Fenton is an author, media executive, China expert, and U.S.-Asia Institute trustee. His book, FEEDING THE DRAGON: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business, is on sale now.