During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, the Communist Party of China (CCP) deployed the weapon of compelled self-abasement to devastating effect. In the practice, rendered in English as the “Struggle Session,” enemies of the party, real or imagined, were forced under threat of imprisonment, torture, and death to denounce and humiliate themselves in public arenas before their peers.
As Daryl Morey, general manager of the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, learned on Sunday, the practice is alive today in a new and global form made possible by the internet. Over the weekend, Morey tweeted a simple image expressing support for the people of Hong Kong’s ongoing challenge to its Beijing-backed government. The image contained but seven words: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
But as is now unavoidable when a prominent figure voices opposition to the CCP, the party’s new internet Red Guards leapt into action. The tweet — the kind of commonplace expression of goodwill about which we in the West would hardly think twice — sparked a public relations firestorm that appears only to be spreading. As of this writing, retail giant Alibaba has pulled Rockets merchandise from its Taobao and Tmall platforms, Chinese broadcasters have canceled Rockets coverage, and the Chinese Basketball Association has nixed a scheduled exhibition game with the Rockets’ developmental team. This reaction is all the more notable since the Rockets are one of the most popular teams in China, having had Yao Ming, China’s first NBA All-Star, as their starting center for a decade.
Despite the NBA’s cultivated reputation for upholding the values of a free society, it quickly distanced itself from Morey and abetted the commencement of his public Struggle Session.
Amid the furor, Morey’s boss, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta, tweeted from the Rockets preseason tour of Japan, “Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.” Rockets cornerstone James Harden responded to the reaction to Morey’s tweet by saying, “We apologize. We love China. We love playing there.” The NBA league office — the entity that should be most prepared to face political maelstrom — released a statement describing as “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” The NBA’s Chinese-language apology, according to translators, was even more craven, expressing that the league was “(e)xtremely disappointed in Morey’s inappropriate statement.”
With his cues delivered from Beijing and the NBA itself, Morey’s self-abasement thus began. He deleted the tweet and replaced it with a mea culpa that may as well have been handed to him by the Red Guards:
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.
Tilman Fertitta, James Harden, and the NBA indeed owe an apology. But they do not owe it to the CCP or to its fragile internet cadres. They owe it to Daryl Morey, the people of Hong Kong, and Chinese dissidents everywhere.
The 21st century will be characterized by increasing tension between free, open, pluralistic societies and societies governed by authoritarianism and repression. Conventional wisdom holds that business entities can benefit people on both sides of that divide and that cultural exports like the NBA will promote the values of the West, as rock and roll did during the Cold War. As the NBA also wrote in its response, it wants to be a unifying force to bring people together. That sentiment is admirable.
But this episode suggests that such an expectation may be naive. The Struggle Session imposed on Daryl Morey reveals that rather than weakening the CCP’s grip on the culture of China, overtures like the NBA’s might weaken our own grip on the values of a free society. As the dominoes continue to fall after Morey’s tweet, corporate boardrooms across the United States are surely filled with unease. From cultural mainstays like the NBA and Hollywood production studios to large retailers like Walmart, American enterprises must reckon with the moral prudence of operating only with the blessing of an unjust regime. The NBA was caught embarrassingly unprepared. Confronted unexpectedly with the choice between solidarity with freedom, openness, and pluralism or with authoritarianism and repression, its reflexive response was to abandon Morey to the internet Red Guards.
Rather than accepting the conditions set by the CCP, the institutions that embody the dynamism, creativity, and wealth-generation of the West ought to establish the terms of cultural engagement, holding as sacrosanct not only expression qua expression but also the values of liberty that Morey’s tweet succinctly conveyed. Fertitta, Harden, and the NBA, in their failure to defend Morey, revealed the pettiness of their own concerns. But with Hong Kong’s limited autonomy being squeezed, Xinjiang’s Uighurs languishing in concentration camps, and the internet Red Guards on the offensive, corporate ignorance and naïveté can no longer be afforded. Businesses need not be moral pioneers marching through Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay to provoke the CCP, but when put to the test they ought to make clear which side of the divide they represent. As the CCP’s economic power grows, more entities will face these difficult decisions. Will they uphold the values of free society, or will they give way and let the Struggle Sessions continue?
Jordan McGillis is a writer based in San Francisco.