Nearly 50 years ago an American ping pong player got on the wrong team bus at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan. He got on the Chinese team bus thus sparking an era of “ping pong diplomacy” between the United States and China (immortalized in the film “Forest Gump). Ping pong is and was a hugely popular sport in China and Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon seized the opportunity to breakdown a barrier that was a remnant of the Cold War. When President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stepped off Air Force One in Beijing in 1972, they were formally recognizing for the first time the largest country in the world—the People’s Republic of China.
Fast forward 50 years and we have now entered an era of “basketball diplomacy” (setting aside Dennis Rodman’s forays into North Korea). China is now our largest trading partner and basketball is as popular in China as ping pong with more viewers of the NBA finals than in the United States. The NBA benefits from Chinese viewers and consumers to the tune of $500 million a year. Just one problem, while China has opened up its economy to the West and vice versa, it has not opened up its political system to Western notions of democracy.
Enter Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey who last week in a tweet stated, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” The Rockets and NBA quickly removed Morey’s tweet although the Chinese government bans twitter, and apologized to those Chinese who might have been offended, however, the damage had been done. NBA exhibition games were yanked from Chinese networks and related non-basketball events cancelled. The Chinese government made it clear that it regarded any comments about its internal politics off limits. American corporations such as Apple and the Gap have received similar warnings in the past.
The NBA responded with mixed messages. Commissioner Adam Silver declared that while the NBA did not seek to interfere in Chinese politics, it would not police the free speech rights of NBA employees. However, a higher power than Commissioner Silver, LeBron James, said Morey was “misinformed or not really educated on the situation” and should not have spoken. James added that Morey did not consider the consequences of his actions. Moreover, Houston superstars James Harden and Russell Westbrook went mum when asked about the situation.
Obviously the consequences James was referring to were the multi-million dollars shoe contracts several of the superstars have with Chinese shoe manufacturers as well as the market for basketball products in China. James was quickly rebuked by human rights advocates who pointed to the consequences for Hong Kong protesters of not speaking out. Even President Trump and Vice President Pence chastised James for his lack of support for the protesters while offering none of their own. Essentially Trump and Pence were getting revenge for the criticism James has leveled at the administration on social justice issues in this country.
What has changed in the 50 years between “ping pong diplomacy” and “basketball diplomacy”? First, we now have a global economy in which private economic interests are equal to and often outweigh national political interests. In 1972 there were no major economic interests involved in the sport of table tennis, therefore the political interests were paramount. Second, there were no celebrity diplomats fifty years ago. Certainly musicians and actors had been involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s but the advent of UN goodwill ambassadors and celebrity diplomats like Bono, Princess Diana, and Muhammad Ali had not yet arrived. Moreover, the development of social media gave those without musical or athletic talent a platform to promote their views bypassing mainstream media or by being in closer contact with celebrities. Finally, the rise of “basketball diplomacy” has revealed the consequences for celebrities of political involvement. It is one thing to promote curing diseases like AIDS or eliminating famine, it is another to adopt causes with significant political and economic implications. The larger forces of neoliberalism and globalism are currently confronting a rise in nativist and populist re-awakenings. This complicates the role of celebrity politicians like Trump and political celebrities such as James.