NBA’s China Syndrome

Oct 12 2019

This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.  

At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”

And the rest is social media history. Kerr replied: 

It has not come up in terms of people asking about it, people discussing it. Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either. Things that our country needs to look at and resolve. That hasn't come up either. None of us are perfect. We all have different issues we have to get to. Saying that is my right as an American. It doesn't mean that I hate my country. It means I want to address the issue. But people in China didn't ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn't asked that question.

The good news for Kerr is that his views got wide dissemination. The bad news is that the dissemination was accompanied by commentary. For example, the assertion that Kerr “just compared China’s Concentration Camps to Americans owning AR-15s” got 2.1K retweets and 4K likes. Of course, Kerr hadn’t actually mentioned China’s persecution of Uighurs (via what are euphemistically called “re-education centers”), but it was predictable that this issue would spring to the minds of his critics. And predictable that they’d sense an asymmetry between this persecution (which the Chinese government pursues systematically) and mass shootings in America (which the US government doesn’t pursue, and would in principle like to stop).

Of course, even if Kerr had come up with a more nearly analogous example of a dubious American policy—say, the massively disproportionate incarceration of African Americans—he’d still be accused, as he was, of “whataboutism.”

Personally, I’m fan of whataboutism. I think it’s a healthy exercise, when you’re decrying something done by someone else or some other nation, to ask whether you, or your nation, has done comparable things—even if all you come up with is remotely comparable things. 

One virtue of this exercise is that it strengthens one of my favorite mental muscles, cognitive empathy—the ability to see the other side’s point of view. Because, however minor your problems or your country’s problems may seem to you, there’s probably someone out there who doesn’t consider them so minor. And, however you prioritize values—freedom of speech as compared to personal safety, say—other people may prioritize them differently, which is a useful thing to keep in mind. 

Leaving aside Kerr’s whataboutism, I think there’s a defense to be made of his earlier “no comment.” It isn’t everyone’s job to opine on the Hong Kong protests. And I can see why Kerr might think it’s his job not to opine on them. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think sports can help build bridges across nations and cultures. It doesn’t always do that, but it can. And, it will have a better chance of doing it if coaches and athletes don’t routinely share an unfiltered version of their view of the nation they’re trying to build a bridge to. 

Now, I’m not so naïve that I think the main motivation behind the NBA’s studious silence on China’s human rights record is to build intercultural bridges. The main motivation is money. But sometimes commercial incentives do happen to align with constructive things. 

In any event, the suggestion that Kerr is motivated by greed is dubious at best. He’s an unusually thoughtful guy who has reason to care about intercultural understanding. His father, a scholar of Arab culture, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was murdered in 1984, apparently by Islamist terrorists. 

And I suspect Kerr’s interactions with China have given him a more nuanced view of that country than many Americans possess. He probably realizes, for example, that many Chinese citizens, and not just the Chinese government, bridle at American criticism, which can therefore intensify the nationalism that adds to an authoritarian government’s power.

Obviously, the virtue of tactical silence has its limits. You wouldn’t encourage American companies to build bridges to Nazi Germany, and its fair to ask whether China’s persecution of the Uighurs, in particular, has moved China beyond the pale. 

That said, the denunciation of everyone who isn’t denouncing everything you think needs denouncing is a contemporary tendency I find unhelpful. And a variant of it I find especially annoying is the indignant allegation that someone has failed to stand up and make some kind of career sacrifice in the name of right. 

Because, for one thing, almost no one ever has the courage to do that, however nice it would be if they did. And, for another thing, some of the people who habitually demand that others make career sacrifices in the name of good are themselves doing roughly the opposite of that. They’re racking up Twitter followers, and thus boosting their career prospects, by conveniently failing to reflect with any depth or nuance on the complex question of how to actually make the world a better place.   

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