The Row over NBA: the Conflict between Liberalism and Nationalism

By Erica Chen

The general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted on Oct 4 to support the protests in Hong Kong, which backlashed him heavily: it outraged the sponsors and fans in China, and China broadcasters said they would stop showing Rockets games. The cost was simply too high to bear — as many as 500 million Chinese watched NBA games last season, and the NBA’s business in China is valued at more than $4 billion. On Oct 7, the NBA swiftly apologised on behalf of Daryl Morey, describing his comments as “regrettable” and acknowledged he had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans of China”. However, NBA boss Adam Silver later defended Morey and said the league would “support freedom of expression”, which drew further anger from China.

An N.B.A. store in Beijing.
An N.B.A. store in Beijing. CreditTingshu Wang/Reuters

As usual, opinions on this issue are very divided between mainland China and the West. Chinese mainlanders felt enraged by Morey’s support of Hong Kong protests and almost unilaterally supported the Chinese government’s decision of banning NBA games in China. On the Contrary, Westerners considered that freedom of speech should be ensured and this issue was simply another demonstration of the authoritarian Chinese government’s oppression of freedom and abuse of human rights. Why is the contrast so stark? Is it truly because “all Chinese were brainwashed by the Chinese government” as it seems to be? Here, I’ll introduce you to the world of nationalism, although the form of it is a bit different from its manifestations in the West.

In China, nationalism is used as a unifying force by the Chinese government. In the current Chinese society, being proud of being a Chinese is equal to supporting all policies of the Chinese government, as there is almost no distinction between the Chinese government and China itself. If someone criticises the policy of the CCP, he or she would be blamed for “not loving China enough,” and should thus leave China. This idea seems strange to the Westerners, as they live in a world in which debates are taken place publicly between interest groups, and the government policy is the result of such debates, compromises, and trade-offs. In China, however, there isn’t such a tradition of public debates. All decisions are made under the surface, because there is a belief in China that the Party will take care of the people, and the “ignorant” people shall not interfere with policy-making which requires “wisdom.”

This belief is not as unreasonable as it seems: only 4% of the Chinese population has been to college, compared to 33.4% in the US. There is a pragmatic side of Chinese policy-making since stability is valued as the priority of the Chinese society, it’s better to put conflicts under the water to avoid troubles and discontents. The strict government censorship is also part of the stabilising program — before solving the problem itself, it’s better not to let people know about it. When most of the population is uneducated, it’s very easy to manipulate the public opinion, and this is a two-sided sword: they could be tamed by the Chinese government, but could also be exploited by foreign forces. That’s when the Great Fire Wall came into force. By blocking information from outside, the Chinese government successfully prevented most people from knowing the other side of the story. Consequently, the mainstream opinions in China are always those supported by the Party, and those who dare to speak against the mainstream opinion would be silenced either directly by the government, or indirectly by cyber-bullying. Thus, dissenters do not dare to speak against the mainstream opinions, especially when they concern the integrity of Chinese territory. The homogeneity of public opinions in China is quite astonishing for Western observers, and in most times they are disapproved of such practices because of the violation of the freedom of speech. However, is this necessarily a bad thing?

The evaluation of this issue depends on your perspective, as there is no such thing as purely “good” or “bad.” The conflict between national interest and individualism is political, thus, I’ll explain the difference between Chinese and Western public opinions in terms of Nationalism and Liberalism. In the Western World, liberal ideas are supported by most people, that is, they believe that the government shall not interfere with personal life and individuals shall have the right to speak against the government. In contrast, in Chinese society, national interest is the priority. A famous Chinese saying, “there is no home without the state”, demonstrates that the Chinese consider the existence of a strong and stable government as the prerequisite of prosperity, which is not wrong. The contemporary history of China is very dark. China lost its prestige and became the “Sick Man of Asia” in the 19th century, humiliating by failures in warfares, and being exploited by foreign powers. The Communist Party gradually restored China’s power, and nowadays, China became one of the most powerful countries in the world. These achievements convinced the Chinese people that the CCP could be the right ruler and they should support the government because it knows what’s the best for its people.

The former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association. The association announced it would suspend ties with the Rockets over the tweet from the team’s general manager.
The former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association. The association announced it would suspend ties with the Rockets over the tweet from the team’s general manager. CreditMark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

This unanimous support enables the Chinese government to implement its policies without obstacles, especially during the crisis. Now, in the middle of the trade war and Hong Kong protests, the CCP is in a precarious time. The disputes between China and Western countries are by nature political, and China seeks to be the winner in this power contest. In the time of crisis, national unity is necessary for the Chinese government because people’s support is the base of its legitimacy. Therefore, Nationalism becomes an important instrument for the government to control public opinions, thus ensure its legitimacy remains unchallenged.

The trade war between China and the United States increases animosity between the two countries and the two peoples. NBA is only a sacrifice to this conflict, serving as a symbol of “American imperialism” in China. Currently, there is a strong sense of hostility between the Chinese and the Westerners, especially the Americans. Because they hold different ideologies, that is, nationalism and liberalism, they are unable to understand each other. In this situation, dialogue is the only way to solve the conflict. We should understand that people have different backgrounds, opinions, etc, and they should be respected. It’s always important to see the other side of the story, and not to be controlled by the mainstream opinions.

2 thoughts on “The Row over NBA: the Conflict between Liberalism and Nationalism”

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