The NBA should stop whitewashing Chinese crimes against Uighurs

The NBA should stop whitewashing Chinese crimes against Uighurs
5 min read
16 Oct, 2019
Comment: In a shameful pursuit of profit, the NBA is curtailing freedom of speech and helping brush Chinese human rights abuses under the rug, writes CJ Werleman.
The popularity of basketball in China makes it a huge market for the NBA [AFP]
When Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest NBA basketball player of all time, was asked in 1990 to comment on the re-election bid of US Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), who has been described as the "role model for modern racism" for today's Republican Party, the sixth time world championship winner with the Chicago Bulls declined to comment, later telling a friend, "Republicans buy shoes, too".

If there was ever a single remark to encapsulate the reticence of professional athletes, teams and organisations to wade into political and social issues, putting the pursuit of profit and popularity before moral and ethical concerns, then Jordan's confession to being more concerned about his lucrative clothing endorsement deals than a politician from his home state who was running on an overly racist and anti-affirmative action platform, must surely be it.

Three decades later, the NBA finds itself echoing Jordan's profit and popularity before human rights stance in the way it is willfully turning a blind eye to China's abuse and detention of more than 3 million Uighur Muslims in a network of concentration camps in Xinjiang - and in what has been described as the largest industrial scale persecution of a religious minority since the Holocaust.

In Xinjiang, located in northwestern China, Beijing has not only criminalised Islam, but also has demolished mosques, converted Islamic burial grounds to car parking lots, and put in place a high-tech surveillance programme to monitor and control the movement of every one of the 12 million Uighur citizens.

Then, there are also corroborated reports and testimony that point to evidence authorities are deploying the whole gamut of repressive measures to carry out what can only be described as cultural genocide, including accounts of torture, public executions, forced labour camps, forced marriages and adoption, sterilisation programmes, and the harvesting of live organs.

The NBA finds itself echoing Jordan's profit and popularity before human rights stance

But recently the NBA has found itself at the centre of Beijing's human rights violations due to a tweet posted by Daryl Morley, the Houston Rockets general manager, in which he expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

"Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," tweeted Morley. This somewhat benign tweet prompted outrage not only from Beijing, but also from a number of the NBA's major business partners in China, and Chinese nationalist fans of the sport.

The NBA issued a statement that described Morley's pro-democracy tweet, which he had subsequently deleted, as "regrettable", with the owner of the Houston Rockets stating its general manager does not speak for the team.

It's impossible to overstate the panic Morley's tweet will have caused within the NBA, given the organisation views enthusiastic China as a massive potential revenue and growth driver, as evident by its move to play a number of exhibition games there.

Seeking to temper critics, including current NBA players who  expressed outrage towards the NBA's censorship of Morley, condemning its actions as an attack on free speech, the organisation's commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement in a televised address:

"And like many global brands, we bring our business to places with different political systems around the world. But for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business. Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA - and will continue to do so. As an American-based basketball league operating globally, among our greatest contributions are these values of the game."

But if the NBA really does value "equality, respect and freedom of expression," as Silver claims, then it must explain why it continues to kowtow to China, with NBA security officials confiscating signs that protest China's human rights violations at recent pre-season games. 

Security officials at a Washington Wizards game last week confiscated signs held up by human rights activists that read, "Google Uyghurs", "Free Tibet", and "Free Hong Kong", while others who chanted protests were removed from the stadium. 

It's one thing to kowtow to China, but now, the NBA is also accused of "whitewashing" the country's Muslim concentration camps in continuing to operate three Chinese basketball-training centers in Xinjiang.

"Operating in such a place seems antithetical to the public stance of a league that has recently gone out of its way to tout its progressive, social-justice bona fides," observes Isaac Stone Fish for Slate.  

The NBA must explain why it continues to kowtow to China

"The NBA should no longer engage with Xinjiang. Yes, it will offend some Chinese fans, and Chinese sports regulators might make it more difficult to bring NBA games to a Chinese audience. But the alternative is to continue to help China whitewash a network of concentration camps."

Clearly, when it comes to expressing support for human rights and freedom of expression, the NBA is talking out both sides of its mouth when it comes to China, providing yet another example of the enormous and threatening stick Beijing carries against any country or organisation it does business with.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.