If you recently saw a picture of a middle finger wielded with a monument of institutional power in the backdrop, it is probably the hand of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, political dissident, and affable human rights agitator. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) just concluded its 20th party congress and has backed Xi Jinping for an unprecedented third term in office. To put it lightly, the Chinese government does not look kindly at political dissent and criticism. Despite the dangers, Mr. Weiwei has been committed to revealing the screwups, hypocrisy, human rights abuses, and moral hazard of Chinese authoritarianism. His efforts culminated in over 50 interrogations and some 81 days in a Chinese prison.
The middle finger is a universal symbol of contempt, and indeed the conduct of the Chinese government (and its American corporate collaborators) on human rights is contemptible. Consider the lives of the Uighur ethnic minority living in the western Chinese province of Xingjian. According to the Council of Foreign Relations, over 11 million Uighurs live in Xingjian, with some one million being unlawfully detained in “reeducation” facilities or mass-internment camps. To see what this ethnic minority endures, check out the extraordinary work of the Frontline journalistic team.
American companies and institutions are in a knee-deep Faustian bargain with the CCP in exchange for access to a 1.4 billion-person market (the largest of its kind in the world). Take the recent example of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and one of its most outspoken superstars, Lebron James. Lebron James has been a vocal supporter of social justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years. To be sure, James wields a platform that is of consequence, so when the NBA Houston Rocket’s GM, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protestors in October 2019 one might have reasonably assumed that Lebron would back Morey’s uncontroversial (at least in the USA) stand. Instead, James took the opportunity to echo NBA public relations orthodoxy at the behest of the CCP:
“I don’t want to get in a word-sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
As it turns out, over 640 million Chinese tuned into the NBA during the 2017-2018 season. That’s a lot of eyeballs, a lot of ads, and a lot of merchandise sales. James’ statement could have only been motivated by the one thing that animates the NBAs executive leadership above all things: money. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said that Morey’s “regrettable tweet” cost the league “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Morey was forced out of his GM role less than a year after his vocal support for fundamental human rights.
The only NBA player to speak out on the matter, Enes Kanter (now Enes Freedom) got released in a trade a year after averaging more than 10 rebounds a game and becoming one of only three players in the history of the NBA to score 20 points and 30 rebounds in one game. When questioned about the peculiarity of being traded and released from the Rockets, Adam Silver noted,
“I made it absolutely clear to [Kanter] that it was completely within his right to speak out on issues that he was passionate about.” He left out, “as long as you’re not playing in the NBA.”
This emperor-has-no-cloths NBA moment coincided with a unified outpouring of support on social media by executives of the Chinese Communist Party. Joe Tsai, the owner of the Brooklyn Nets and tech giant Alibaba, actively aids (through Chinese company Megvii and SenseTime) the AI-backed monitoring and detention of Uigurs in western China. The NBA, predictably, has declined to comment on the matter.
It is rare (and laughable) to see millionaires and billionaires scrambling and regurgitating communist propaganda, but money, like cocaine, is a “hell of a drug .”The NBA is not alone among corporations propping up an authoritarian state. All tech and social media companies conducting business in China MUST open their data centers and computer systems to Chinese Communist Party inspectors. According to a New York Times report,
“Apple has ceded legal ownership of its customers’ data to Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, or GCBD, a company owned by the government.”
As Ai Weiwei has eloquently said,
“Any state or organization, business or culture alike, involved with a state with such an extremely poor record on human rights, with divisive ideas about those most important values such as free speech, becomes a part of this power. If you do not question that power, you become complicit.”
Looking at you, Lebron.