Capital One Arena broadcast a pre-recorded speech by Qin to the audience on Tuesday on the occasion of Lunar New Year – which the NBA referred to as “Chinese New Year,” despite it being a celebration observed throughout Asia – that also featured Chinese dance troupes, a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a Chinese traditional instrument, and other activities “honoring Chinese culture.”
This official Chinese government appearance at what was billed as an apolitical sporting event follows years of efforts by both the NBA and the Communist Party to strengthen ties, resulting in the NBA profiting to the tune of billions of dollars. The NBA’s partnership with Chinese mega-streamer Tencent ensures that Chinese fans can watch government-censored versions of the competition in the United States. The league’s eagerness to cooperate with government-friendly Chinese partners has elevated the profiles of individuals such as Alibaba founder and billionaire Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, who has used this platform to promote his authoritarian, pro-Beijing opinions in the league.
Ambassador Qin “congratulated NBA on its legendary 75th anniversary, hoping it will keep on getting better in the years to come,” according to the state-run Global Times. “He also noted that both the Wizards and the Clippers were special in the hearts of Chinese fans, as some famous Chinese players had once played for the two teams respectively.”
“Clearly, something is bigger than basketball,” the outlet quoted the ambassador as stating.
Qin also “wished both [Chinese and American] teams best performances in the Beijing 2022 [Winter Olympic Games],” promoting an event that human rights advocates have decried as the “Genocide Games” for honoring a country currently engaging in genocide against multiple ethnic minority populations.
The Winter Olympics are expected to begin on February 4 despite over a year of calls to boycott or relocate the event. In addition to condemnation of the genocide of the Uyghur people of East Turkistan, opponents of the Games note that Beijing is a dangerous place for athletes due to an ongoing, uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak; high levels of pollution; and potential repression against dissident athletes by the state. The Chinese government just last week warned athletes they will face police action if they express any disagreement with the regime while present at the Olympics.
The NBA advertised the Wizards-Clippers game as a larger “celebration of the Year of the Tiger” last week.
“As part of the celebration of the Year of the Tiger, the game will feature a Chinese New Year themed matchup animation as well as facts on the Year of the Tiger. The national anthem will be performed using the Chinese instrument pipa,” the NBA press release read. “Various activities and game integrations honoring Chinese culture will be highlighted throughout the game including the red envelope giveaways, a message from Chinese ambassador Qin Gang and welcome messages featuring Wizards players.”
“Washington will continue the celebration across the Wizards’ social channels with a campaign honoring Chinese culture. A video of players speaking Mandarin and a video of players doing Chinese character writing will be showcased,” it also noted.
The Chinese embassy in Washington celebrated the event, applauding Capital One arena for being “rich in Chinese culture atmosphere [sic].”
“The audience was immersed in the Chinese New Year blessings and an enjoyable ‘Chinese Cultural Night,’” the embassy said in an approving statement on the event.
The Chinese Communist Party has been transparent about seeking to use its ties to the NBA to promote its political agenda, particularly after a controversy in 2019 in which former Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a statement of support on social media for the anti-communist movement in Hong Kong. Morey’s tweet resulted in China shutting down much of the NBA’s access to the country for years and, according to Commissioner Adam Silver, losses into the hundreds of millions of dollars. While China has since restored streaming of NBA games into the country, it continues to censor games featuring the Philadelphia 76ers, who hired Morey away from the Rockets during the time Beijing banned NBA games.
Silver insisted in remarks last year that “engagement is better than isolation,” regarding the NBA’s ties to China.
“The political science major in me believes that engagement is better than isolation,” Silver claimed. “That a so-called boycott of China, taking into account legitimate criticisms of the Chinese system, won’t further the agenda of those who seek to bring about global change. Working with Chinese solely on NBA basketball has been a net plus for building relationships between two superpowers.”
Last year, the Global Times asserted that the Communist Party’s benevolent decision to allow the NBA back into the country means the NBA should “undertake a certain amount of lobbying within the U.S.” for Chinese government interests.
The Uyghur genocide has become a hot topic in basketball discourse after Turkish-American Boston Celtics star Enes Kanter Freedom began advocating for the Uyghur cause – as well as calling for an end to the repression of Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, Hong Kong protesters, and dissidents in general. Freedom began this season wearing shoes decorated with anti-communist art on the court, resulting in China banning the streaming of Celtics games nationwide. Freedom has since said that NBA officials attempted to coerce him into taking off his shoes, which he refused to do.
Freedom’s sentiments are rare in the NBA.
“Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, OK?” Chamath Palihapitiya, a billionaire co-owner of the Golden State Warriors, said on a podcast this month. “You bring it up because you really care, and I think it’s nice that you care. The rest of us don’t care. I’m just telling you a very hard, ugly truth. Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line. Of all the things that I care about, it is below my line.”
Palihapitiya has since issued a statement claiming that “human rights matter,” but has not apologized. ✪
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