Hurting their feelings

Imagine my shock that Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-Canadian co-founder of Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, is gravely displeased by a tweet posted (and quickly deleted) by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey:

Open letter to all NBA fans:

When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn’t expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened.

By now you have heard that Chinese fans have reacted extremely negatively to a tweet put out by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of protests in Hong Kong.

The Rockets, who by far had been the favorite team in China, are now effectively shut out of the Chinese market as fans abandon their love for the team, broadcasters refuse to air their games and Chinese corporates pull sponsorships in droves.

Fans in China are calling for an explanation – if they are not getting it from the Houston Rockets, then it is natural that they ask others associated with the NBA to express a view.

The NBA is a fan-first league. When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up.

What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues.

The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.

Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

A bit of historical perspective is important. In the mid-19thcentury, China fought two Opium Wars with the British, aided by the French, who forced through illegal trade of opium to China. A very weak Qing Dynasty government lost the wars and the result was the ceding of Hong Kong to the British as a colony.

The invasion of Chinese territories by foreign forces continued against a weak and defenseless Qing government, which precipitated in the Boxer Rebellion by Chinese peasants at the turn of the 20th century. In response, the Eight Nations Alliance – comprised of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary – dispatched their forces to occupy Chinese territories in the name of humanitarian intervention. The foreign forces marched into the Chinese capital Peking (now called Beijing), defeated the peasant rebels and proceeded to loot and pillage the capital city.

In 1937, Japan invaded China by capturing Beijing, Shanghai and the then-Chinese capital Nanjing. Imperial Japanese troops committed mass murder and rape against the residents of Nanjing, resulting in several hundred thousand civilian deaths. The war of resistance by the Chinese against Japan ended after tens of millions of Chinese casualties, and only after America joined the war against Japan post-Pearl Harbor.

I am going into all of this because a student of history will understand that the Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories.

When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation.

By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China. I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.

I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China. I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.

Sincerely,
Joe Tsai

Those of us who are familiar with China have received this history lesson before. Many times. And in a sense, the reaction of the fans is understandable. For other examples of this type of thing, see here, here, here and here.

Quote from the second link:

The Marriott International hotel chain has apologised and condemned “separatists” in China after the Beijing government shut down its website over an online questionnaire that suggested some Chinese regions were separate countries.

China’s Cyberspace Administration, the internet watchdog, said the hotelier had “seriously violated national laws and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” after a customer survey listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries. The regulator ordered Marriott’s website and booking applications to close for a week.

Note that phrase, “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—another formulation that China watchers will be very familiar with—and compare to Tsai’s version:

When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation. […] the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.

Shame. Anger. Hurt feelings. Separatism. Opium Wars. This is what American companies must now deal with because, well, 1.4 billion customers. (China is the NBA’s largest international market.)

Here we see the clash between two different, utterly incompatible value systems, each with its own virtues and flaws, which are now mutually entangled in a way that never before would have been possible due to globalization. The increasing preposterousness of the situation suggests that a great Untangling is coming, and soon.

3 thoughts on “Hurting their feelings

  1. “China suspends work with Rockets over GM tweet … after general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.” And this is what the whole world will look like if we don’t stand up now and demand a change. “‘We love China’: Rockets’ Harden ‘sorry’ over GM’s Hong Kong tweet” and of course they caved in and apologized to China.

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