Making sense of the NBA’s situation concerning China, and expansion

The NBA is currently grappling with the biggest potential roadblock to growth it has faced since the American Basketball Association in the 1970s, and one it arguably should have seen coming.

With plans to grow the sport of basketball worldwide come new contexts, and with those contexts, geopolitical problems the NBA has long known about. The deep roots of the league in the United States and Europe has seen the growth of the sport take place largely domestically, and in countries with similar cultures and histories — at least, until recently, and those differences are making very big waves for the league in recent weeks.

If you look at the regions of the world where basketball has taken hold the most, it has been primarily in countries with a long history of democratic governance, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Western Europe, Oceania, and to a lesser extent Brazil and Argentina (who have of course not had the most consistent record with democratic governance even if it has been the goal).

More recently, Russia and China — two former communist (at least in the more traditional sense of the word, more on that shortly) states with a long history of regional isolationism (as in they kept to their immediate spheres of influence, geographically large as they may be) have been spreading their wings on the world stage in terms of engaging with and haphazardly adopting capitalism into their own styles of governance, and with it, the NBA and basketball more generally.

While the Russian aspect is beyond the scope of this article, as an anthropologist whose work touches on the intersection of traditional US spheres of interest and the rising soft power initiative China is currently rolling out with new intensity, I can help shed some light on what exactly the NBA has found itself in the middle of.

When working on my PhD, I came to my now-home of Mexico to study a rail development project, and how various actors affected the negotiation of public interest surrounding the train project.

Without putting you to sleep with the minutiae of transport anthropology, I will note that a major player in international development in Mexico, Latin America, and much of the developing world is the Chinese government, using a combination of hybrid public-private companies many political analysts view as part of the Chinese government despite the veneer of independence, who are currently involved in the biggest plan for global ascendence since the second world war.

What am I talking about, exactly? Namely, the creation of the “One Belt, One Road” plan, more or less a modern, Chinese version of the Marshall Plan. For those of you who did not care much for history, that was how the US inserted itself as the preeminent power of the world through offering its devastated European allies loans, raw materials, and US expertise funded via low- to no-interest loans so long as it generates revenue and influence (and often, military bases) for growing US soft power around the world.

Fast forward to the modern day, and China is doing more or less the same thing. While the eventual legacies of US soft power expansion, the Bretton-Woods institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have retreated to promoting programs of austerity to fund development projects around the world in less-developed states, China has seized on an opportunity to serve as an alternative to grow their own soft power, funding and building infrastructure projects around the globe while gaining access to cheap raw materials it needs to keep its economy and nascent middle class afloat.

What does all this have to do with the NBA? Well, the water none of us in the West typically do not see like the fish in a fish tank is the context behind China’s reasoning for such a course of action. For much of the last three hundred years, they have been on the exploitative end of Britain and France doing something not unlike what the US did at the end of World War II, though in a much less friendly way.

Those two powers — supported by US business interests — literally fought wars for the right to sell opiates to Chinese citizens to help offset the negative trade balance many Western states have had with China over the centuries, and after that ended, China was at the mercy of Western (and Japanese) imperial designs, with the Cold War footing exploiting contesting visions for China’s future, as supporting Taiwan’s self-government helped keep the balance of power in the region favorable to US and Western interests.

The NBA began to look to China as reforms changed how mainland China engaged the West in the late 1980s, but even then, as China began to open its borders to capitalistic commerce and Western ideas more than it had in decades if not longer, concerns about the clash of cultures were present. The hope was engagement with large, potentially very profitable markets like China would be wiser than turning one’s back on them, and it may very well still be the wisest move longer-term on several levels. But it also complicates the league’s situation on a number of levels that need to be considered.

Firstly, the “situation” being referred to here is a complex one in and of itself. While the tweet in support of Hong Kong activists that sparked all of this discussion was not especially problematic through Western eyes, it was a moment China chose to send the league a message, and it was an unambiguous one:

China has arrived on the world stage, and is done being told how it should run internal affairs of territories foreign powers have long dictated how society should run.”

There is absolutely merit to their position, even if we as individuals intensely dislike how that vision is manifesting. China is one of the world’s oldest cultures, with their own corpus of philosophy, science, political ideas, and morality that views truths we in the West hold as universal at arms length in many cases and in others, as social ills. They value unity and stability much more than individual expression, to the point that they feel the need to “re-educate” those who represent a significant threat to that order, even if they are native to the lands in which China governs.

While deeply problematic, it should be noted much of the hand-wringing over what is going on in China with regard to both pro-democracy protest oppression and putting societally marginal people in camps is something the US is itself struggling with, and many of the same voices on both the right and left bothering to weigh in on these issues from the perspective of sport are often taking similar positions as the Chinese government, if they are weighing in at all.

When LeBron made the mistake of weighing in on the situation recently (ironically, in ways not that unlike Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey did), it had the effect of looking like a callous appeal to his wallet, but he also had a point. All of us are in terra nullius, or rather unknown waters, when it comes to how China will assert itself as a truly sovereign state trying to project an image of good governance to the world that fits their own culture and history in ways many of us find very problematic.

But we also don’t expect ALL or even any NBA players, GMs, or other employees to necessarily weigh in on similar issues in the US, even if we tend to rally around them when they do. While players and others should probably be looked at askance when they seem to publicly advocate for personal economic concerns at the expense of the misery of others, we also shouldn’t expect activism as the default concern of people struggling to do their job and advocate for more immanent concerns — nor should we get into the business of telling others what those concerns should be.

At the same time, the effects of China on chilling free speech beyond their borders is a deeply concerning issue, and one that shouldn’t be easily dismissed. Nor should individuals nor organizations who take issue with how China treats its own citizens be put off about speaking up in support of internal  dissent to Chinese politics when it results in large-scale protests or loss of freedom, culture, or life.

While we all may need to boost our engagement with the anthropological concept of cultural relativity to prevent our own cultural biases from infringing on the rights of others, we can still draw lines based on extreme examples of deprivation or precarity that is caused by authoritarian governments or egregious incompetence.

But we must also take care not to project our own displeasure with domestic politics onto other countries, and respect how individuals — and private leagues — handle responding to all of these issues on a case-by-case basis, and with absolutely massive investments in the Chinese market as a cornerstone of the league’s plans for global expansion, this will be a tightrope for the ages for all involved to walk.

The NBA has three of its seven international development academies in China — one very close to those disturbing Chinese “re-education” camps located in China, hosts multiple games there most seasons, streams games to a bigger audience than the US has citizens, and has strong economic ties between individual players and Chinese companies via endorsement deals. Players often spend time in the Chinese Basketball Association early and late in their careers, when their skill level isn’t up to — or has fallen from — NBA-caliber play.

Moreover, doubling down on the league with pressure to punish outspoken individuals would likely draw even more attention to some of these unsavory situations, and negatively impact China’s worldwide reputation, much predicated by the ongoing soft power initiatives.

The potential economic losses losing or even significantly curtailing the NBA’s presence there is not a small issue either for either side (the NBA would face a shrinking cap with the loss of revenue that would hurt the value of teams and future salary, for example). With plans to expand into Africa, another region with a questionable (if explicable) relationship to western-style democracy and values, this is far from the only potential trouble spot for the league in coming years.

If you came here looking for solutions to this problem, you won’t find them. But what you will find is a call for careful, measured reflection as both the US, China, and wider global basketball community take a seat at the table as we try and make sense off these competing visions for the world.

Visions that we can hopefully find ways to move forward with that do not require massive economic losses, conflict, and, more important than anything else, ways of being heard and crafting our futures that does not require putting those who think differently in cages.


Featured photo – Getty Images / USAToday / Double Clutch illustration – Matthew Wellington