Adam Silver’s introduction to Chinese politics

Society & Culture

The NBA supports its constituents’ speech rights in precisely the way that the Communist Party, which actually has constituents, does not. Let’s give commissioner Adam Silver his due credit.

Being an American who cares about Chinese politics is a bit like following the professional cornhole leagues: there aren’t very many of us, we all know each other, and we’re used to being ignored. We talk to each other on Twitter or in specialist magazines, and debate arcane tactical developments with a hobbyist’s zeal.

Thus the sudden mainstreaming of Chinese politics these last few days has felt something like a hobbyist’s fever dream. After Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s short-lived tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters touched off an international geopolitical incident, suddenly cornhole is on primetime. All the cool kids — ESPN-watching, NBA-breathing American Joe’s — are witnessing the same noxious mix of nationalism, hurt feelings, and indignation that us China politics nerds have been witnessing for years. The NBA’s reported $4 billion Chinese market is on the line.

I first moved to China to teach English in 2014. One of my first experiences was listening to a 19-year-old university student from Hangzhou present his final term paper on his love of the Houston Rockets. In the five years after that, I traveled extensively in China where among the questions I received was “Do you know Kobe?” and “Do you like Curry?” Among the first Chinese words I learned were “Portland Trailblazers” and “Washington Wizards,“ which meant that I could say “I support the Washington Wizards,” and not much else. (I know, a tragic state of affairs.) I mention this all to say: $4 billion is a very large number, but it does not even a penny overstate the deep, enduring enthusiasm of millions of Chinese people for the 30 NBA teams, and 30 North American cities, they’ll likely never see in person.

Adam Silver has been roundly criticized for his handling of Daryl Morey’s tweet and its aftermath. My fellow China politics watchers, also enjoying their moment in the U.S. cultural primetime, have criticized him too. Thus I feel particularly anomalous admitting, having read both the NBA’s original press release and Adam Silver’s follow-up statement on October 9, that I feel he’s done an admirable job.

Dealing with a vengeful, tempestuous authoritarian regime like China’s is challenging under the best of circumstances; doing so with $4 billion at stake, plus hundreds of U.S. players, owners, and GMs scrutinizing one’s every action is damn near impossible. To be sure, Silver is still the figurehead of a multi-billion dollar entertainment juggernaut. But as any of us fellow China politics lovers know, it’s not like other brands that have fallen afoul of China’s rulers —  any other corporate brands, really — have conducted themselves with great dignity. The history of U.S. companies offending China’s rulers, up until now, has been primarily a story of rank cowardice and bovine acquiescence.

Adam Silver’s statement was not a masterclass of corporate courage. It won’t likely earn him many fans in Washington or Beijing. And yet, the carefully worded statement strikes approximately the balance that many of us who care about China, myself included, typically struggle to maintain. The great tragedy of modern China is that the people of China do not choose their rulers. Sometimes they support the Party; sometimes they tolerate the Party; at other times, they use roundabout ways to criticize the Party, but under no circumstance do they ever have a say in the matter. Recognizing that division — between a beautiful people and a complicated regime — is the first step toward treating Chinese people, many millions of whom are equally passionate NBA fans to you or me, with the dignity they deserve.

Read between the lines of Silver’s statement and you can see it. “Over the last three decades,” Silver writes, “the NBA has developed a great affinity for the people of China.” Not “China.” Not ”the Chinese nation.” Then later, “We have seen how basketball can be an important form of people-to-people exchange that deepens ties between the United States and China.” His emphasis, in this statement at least, is precisely where it ought to be: on Chinese fans, not the government who claims the right to speak on their behalf. He is speaking to the very same fans who tune into 10 am live broadcasts of Los Angeles Clippers games. Who dream of being Steph Curry one day. Who write their final term paper on their love of the Houston Rockets.

Which, in the end, is precisely what Silver claims to stand for. The right of individuals to speak unregulated by the institutions that rule them. “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so,” Silver goes on. “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.” In other words, the NBA supports its constituents’ speech rights in precisely the way that the Communist Party, which actually has constituents, does not. What’s more, he says the NBA “simply could not operate” if it did regulate its constituents’ speech. That’s not corporate empty-speak. That’s political conviction.

Silver’s is a noble, and potentially expensive, sentiment. The Chinese Communist Party does not forget easily — just ask Norway. The NBA’s commissioner hasn’t handled this situation perfectly, but he’s done better than he might be expected to, or indeed better than most other corporate leaders have. Before this political moment moves on, then, flicked away from Channel China, I’d like to extend at least this observer’s warm recognition to Adam Silver. Caring about Chinese politics can be a bitter vocation. Welcome to the team.