- - Thursday, October 10, 2019

Last Friday, a now-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sent China and the NBA world into a frenzy. Immediately, the NBA’s Chinese partners suspended all ties with the Houston Rockets, and the NBA released a statement claiming that Mr. Morey had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.”

What was the terrible thing that Mr. Morey posted? Well, he simply publicly supported the pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong by tweeting the slogan “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” 

Right now, Hong Kong citizens are embroiled in the fight of their lives against the growing authoritarianism of the Chinese government. It seems strange, then, that Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta was so quick to tweet that Mr. Morey “does NOT speak” for the team. Mr. Morey’s support for basic freedoms, too, was deemed “regrettable” by NBA spokesman Mike Bass. 

Whose team are these guys on, anyway?

China’s, so it seems. And their loyalty is enmeshed with a dependency on China’s money. As one of the most popular NBA teams in China, the Houston Rockets are on track to lose hundreds of millions, if not billions, if the Chinese market continues to punish them for Morey’s “regrettable” proclamation. Of course, that shouldn’t matter to them in the face of the regime’s continual assault on freedom. However, sadly it does.

American businesses have long tailored their products or services to the demands of the Chinese market — and its censors. As Ryan Khurana of the Institute for Advancing Prosperity has noted, this practice can be seen in everything from Hollywood’s re-editing its films so they don’t violate the Communist Party’s definition of “public morality” to Google’s offering to comply with censorship practices that directly oppose its own mission of increasing people’s access to information worldwide. 

Until recently, the American public didn’t really notice. But now, things are different. It’s no longer just a matter of companies changing their product to satisfy the Chinese market. The controversy surrounding the Houston Rockets is evidence that some American businesses are willing to silence their own employees at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party. 

It’s cowardly, but being brave has become less important to companies as access to China’s enormous market grows into an ever more irresistible prize to firms around the world. China boasts a mushrooming middle class of more than 400 million people and a massive economy that has, in some ways, already surpassed the United States’. 

Of course, China is still a ruthless authoritarian state with extreme disregard for human rights. It’s using ever more forceful methods to suppress the Hong Kong protestors and, in Xinjiang, more than one million Muslims are currently imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps.” Any semblance of freedom in their press or speech is seriously absent, too. 

As China Daily, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party, proclaimed, China hopes “the incident with Morey and the Houston Rockets will teach other companies a lesson: The big Chinese market is open to the world, but those who challenge China’s core interests and hurt Chinese people’s feelings cannot make any profit from it.” In other words, any criticism of China will not bode well for American businesses from now on.

But U.S. businesses shouldn’t cave to China’s will. In fact, firms that stand for freedom of expression ought not worry about scorn from the Chinese, because Americans shouldn’t be trying to appease an oppressive regime. Rather, companies that act to censor the free expression of their employees should have their feet held to the fire by a concerned American people. 

The U.S. consumer should take a firm stand and potentially boycott those organizations that continue to give in to the draconian whims of the Communist Party. Doing so would create an heavy disincentive to any company thinking of succumbing to the pressures of the Chinese government, and similarly, if the collective pressure of multinational businesses standing up to Chinese censorship builds, the shoe will be on the other foot — Beijing will be forced to rethink its current practices out of fear of losing the business of many of America’s billion-dollar companies.

Like Mr. Morey, Americans have a duty to stand boldly against authoritarian abuses abroad, even when money is at stake. After all, China isn’t holding all the cards. U.S. consumers have a great deal of power that they can leverage all on their own.  

• Alexander C. R. Hammond is the policy adviser to the director general at the Institute of Economic Affairs and a Young Voices Foreign Policy fall fellow. You can find him on Twitter at @AlexanderHammo 

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