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Opinion

Column: Why Daryl Morey’s infamous tweet struck such a raw nerve in China

It was the tweet heard ’round the world, especially across the Pacific: “Fight for Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” The Houston Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, posted it in support of protests against China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The tweet was deleted and Morey apologized for any offense. But the reverberations keep rolling like ocean waves. The NBA has lost Chinese sponsors, and Chinese TV won’t broadcast Rockets’ preseason games there. Rockets star James Harden apologized for the tweet with, “You know, we love China. We love playing there …”

From the other side, the NBA got smacked down by Democratic and Republican politicians and by fans for what came off as a namby-pamby statement about the “regrettable” offense the tweet caused, and for not endorsing Morey’s right to free expression with more ardor.

China is no basketball backwater. It’s the NBA’s second-biggest market, worth billions. If it weren’t, would all of this be happening because of one tweet?

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Kenneth Pomeranz is a scholar of China and East Asia, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Chicago and author of several works on that country’s culture and economy, including the forthcoming “Why Is China So Big?”

He sees the NBA flare-up in context, as the yield on a social and cultural crop that official China began sowing nearly 30 years ago, after the Tiananmen Square protests — a “patriotic education” imbuing the Chinese with a history that emphasizes how foreigners have victimized and humiliated the Chinese, and the clear message, “no more.”

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A tweet by a general manager of a pro basketball team sets China afire with reaction. And maybe that’s not quite so well understood here. Why was it so incendiary?

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There are a bunch of things you have to remember. One is that most people in China are not seeing the Hong Kong story that you were seeing if you’re watching American television or reading the Western press. They’re getting a heavily censored view in which they see things like protesters desecrating a Chinese flag. But they don’t get anything like the full story of why those protesters are so upset in the first place. There’s also a larger story, which is that Chinese nationalism today is a nationalism that is in many ways built around the idea of overcoming or avenging what’s called national humiliation.

This is essentially the idea that from roughly the beginning of the Opium Wars in 1839 until the Chinese Communist Party takes power in 1949, China suffers one insult after another at the hands of imperialism, and that the great achievement of the Chinese Communist Party is that they have, in Mao Tse-Tung’s words, “China has stood upright” — that it’s now pushing back and mostly winning in a battle to undo this century of humiliation.

It was there for a long time and it’s partially based in truth. I mean, horrible things were done. Massive amounts of opium imports into China, foreign atrocities during the suppression of the Boxer uprising in 1899, 1900, the Japanese invasion in 1937 to 1945, which may have cost as many as 20 million Chinese lives.

It’s been turned into the absolute lodestar of not only nationalist sentiment, but the Chinese government’s own legitimacy. The Communist Party, which once upon a time said that what it was doing is that it was leading the peasants and the workers in their triumph over capitalism — it doesn’t say that very much anymore.

Jiang Zemin, who was premier, said in his 2001 speech to the party congress that the Communist Party’s greatest contribution was, quote, ending national humiliation.

And Hong Kong, which the British acquired by force after the Opium War, has a particular symbolic place in that story.

Regaining Hong Kong was this tremendous moment of pride and a sort of sign that the bad old days were almost entirely over now.

And so in the eyes of many Chinese, for Hong Kong people to not be patriotic Chinese is a sort of sign of ingratitude, that they’ve been liberated by the Chinese from imperialism and now they are ungrateful.

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With that probably goes some sense that even for people in major Chinese cities, which are fairly prosperous these days, I think most of them probably know that Hong Kong is especially prosperous, and they’re kind of — what’s wrong with these people?

So there’s all of that. And for an American in particular to be seen as encouraging Hong Kong to defy what many Chinese see as legitimate Chinese authority is for many of them like a stick in the eye.

And for them this was perhaps not just regarded as a tweet by a general manager of one NBA team. Was this symbolic? It just pushed buttons that weren’t even imagined in this country?

One thing to remember is, this is obviously a very different system in which — though China obviously has economically speaking a large private sector — these days there’s a heck of a lot of coordination between that private sector and the state.

So the idea is that, oh [Daryl Morey] just speaks for himself. In a lot of Chinese people’s eyes, that doesn’t quite cut it.

And even if they think that, “Oh yes, he does speak for himself” — well, then they’re really angry at him, and he is an important executive with an NBA team. And this genuinely angers them.

I don’t want to argue that these feelings are legitimate, right? Obviously I think that this guy should say what he thinks about Hong Kong or about any other subject.

But the fact that this ultranationalism has been consciously stoked by the government for many years — and it has — doesn’t mean that it isn’t now real. Those feelings are there.

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That idea that China has this kind of special mission to not only overcome its own national humiliation, but in doing that, it’s doing something important for the world, runs really deep. And it runs deep partly for reasons that are based in reality, but also for reasons that are based in intensive government campaigns.

Particularly in the aftermath of [the] Tiananmen [protests in 1989], there was a major push to institute what was called “patriotic education.”

There was a major rewrite of the history textbooks in ’91, ’92, that they would place far greater emphasis on China’s victimization and humiliation by foreigners. Then in 1995, the government designated and pumped a bunch of money into the central government funding of 100 of what were called patriotic education bases, places that people could go to as tourist sites, etc., to be reminded of their national heritage.

And of those hundred patriotic education bases, 40 of them had to do with foreign invasions. Bear in mind that China has a very, very long history, and many, many things that you could point to in that history to rally around other than just resistance to foreign invasions.

Let me move on to where the NBA might find itself — on its heels. Because China is a big market — maybe 10% of the NBA’s current revenue by one estimate, and over the next 20 years up to 20%. Here’s a quandary for a lot of businesses: China is a tremendous market, has tremendous moneymaking potential, and has yet to repudiate the idea that an American, even an American in an NBA capacity, can’t have a personal opinion about Chinese affairs would strike a lot of Americans as un-American.

It absolutely is a quandary. And obviously they’re not the only foreign business that faces these sorts of issues. And of course it’s probably a little bit more complicated even for a business like the NBA, because it’s a franchise arrangement; a Houston Rockets executive is not an employee subject to firing by the commissioner of basketball, even if he wanted to.

And it’s also because it’s fundamentally an entertainment business. Entertainment businesses live and die by public approval. If you sell rubber gaskets that go into something else as parts well, the public is not terribly aware of who needs the rubber gaskets.

On the other hand, an NBA game is very obviously an NBA game. The branding is the whole business. If you live by branding, you die by branding, or at least you risk dying by branding.

Are we in for more of these quandaries as time goes on, as China asserts itself even more on the world stage, and the United States is more dependent on China as a market?

We probably are, partly for the reasons that you gave, partly because at the moment the United States is not in a great position to say, we stand unambiguously for free speech, etc., etc. We don’t currently have the kind of government that will make that point or would be taken all that seriously if it did.

There is the tremendous importance of the Chinese market, and there’s the general atmosphere of tension, which of course makes all of this that much more likely.

If you generally have a positive attitude towards Americans, then even if you’re ticked off by one thing an American said, you’re more likely to let it slide than if you’re not generally happy with Americans than vice versa.

So China’s sense now of its place in the world, if maybe the 20th century was the American century and the 19th century the British century, is there a sense in China that the 21st century is China’s century?

Yeah. It’s certainly not a unanimous sense, but there are a lot of people who would say that. And I think if they would say that worries you, how did the rest of the world feel when you talked about an American century? Or when as recently as the 1990s, Bill Clinton said if we do everything right, there’ll be a second American century?

There are an appreciable number of Chinese who would feel that that [Chinese century] is going to happen and that that’s in fact the way it should be.

There are other people who have a much more limited sense, and sort of they still perceive a world in which China is being pushed around and they want to see that end.

And there are people for whom none of this matters all that much. They’re worried about their kids’ futures, their healthcare, their whatever, just like millions of people here.

The Chinese government has made a tremendous effort to convince people that [the Chinese] have a stake, not just a material stake, but a sort of existential stake in China’s status in the world. That it’s important to be patriotic, it should be a source of great satisfaction to you that China has a bigger profile in the world than it used to. This is your little piece of immortality. The nation is the thing that’s going to live after you die. And your contribution to building it is the way that a little piece of you lives on after you’re gone.

I don’t envy the NBA in this. James Harden said, I love China, and a lot of other people in the NBA aren’t saying anything at all.

It’s not an easy situation for them to be in. But that’s kind of the world we live in, right? China looms large. But there are all sorts of groups, both foreign and domestic, where if you want to do business with them, you bite your lip about this, that or the other thing.

Part of being grown-ups is we got to make our decisions about when we will bite our lips and when we won’t.

This is the 70th anniversary of the Maoist revolution. Is it in any way comparable, say to the American bicentennial — a sense of pride, of revival, of renewed identity?

There are a lot of people for whom it’s a tremendous source of pride, that as they see it, and they’re not entirely wrong. China 70 years ago was in terrible shape, both domestically, in terms of poverty, and they’ve made tremendous strides. Internationally, they feel like they are respected and those feelings — we can look askance at them all we want, but they’re real.

You can’t, I think, say to a Chinese, “Hey, how does it really hurt you for somebody to say things you don’t like about China?” and expect them to just nod and say, “Oh that’s true, it doesn’t hurt me at all.”

Any more than you can expect to say to millions of Americans, “Well, why does it really bother you if somebody burns the U.S. flag or something?” Yet we know that millions and millions of Americans are incredibly incensed by that behavior. People care about symbolic insults.

What does China tell itself about its role in the bigger world today?

If you pick up a Chinese history textbook, a kind of standard history of modern China, it will have a sentence in it something like this:

On Sept. 2, 1945, the heroic struggle of the Chinese people against Japanese imperialism came to a triumphant end.

That sentence is literally true, right. For eight years, they were subject to a brutal invasion. And on Sept. 2, 1945, it was all over. And they won.

What as an American you know is that there’s a part of the story they’re not telling, which is that it ended to a significant extent because it was the U.S. Navy that sent the Japanese fleet to the bottom of the ocean.

So the sentence isn’t false and it tells about something that they are understandably proud of. But it ignores the fact that they didn’t do it alone. It creates a world in which China can only rely on itself, and when China triumphs, it’s good for everybody.

That’s the national narrative. And it’s partly true. It ignores a bunch of stuff, but it’s deeply felt. And before we feel too superior to them for that, we should ask ourselves how many Americans are aware that the vast majority of Nazi casualties in World War II were inflicted by the Soviet Union?

It may not be our textbooks that distort that, but our popular culture certainly does.

Think of your standard Hollywood war movie. It’s almost always us and maybe a couple of Brits who save the world.

Some countries have their national myths. Particularly large countries probably have their national myths in which they only rely on themselves and they save the world by doing so.

China has that in spades, because they’re convinced that it’s right, and that it not only saved itself from imperialism and fascism, but it saved the world from them. In the view of people like that, the folks in Hong Kong should be grateful to China.

An awful lot of top-down manipulation went into creating those feelings. But those feelings are there now, and they’re real.


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