In the “Less is more economy” (Chapter 2) we talked about the uncertainties surrounding the current status of the economy and society, in which our value systems largely depend on economic growth, or “more.” We observed that growth may not be perpetual because there is only one Earth with finite resources, which are decreasing quickly as more and more people collectively consume enormous amounts of materials. Last week, we were caught off guard by an alarming incident that erupted between the NBA and China, which poses a fundamental question about the choice between democracy/freedom and profit. Why did it have to happen today? Was this the result of a personal action by an “uneducated” individual and therefore totally avoidable, as some players implied? Or is it the harbinger of something much more serious that’s on the horizon?
NBA learned a bitter lesson: Freedom is not free
On Oct. 4, 2019, Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters. The reaction was surreal for people like me who have never had business relationships with China; the Chinese government was infuriated. Even after Morey deleted the tweet, which happened very swiftly, China was still very upset, initiating a series of “disciplinary” actions towards the NBA, cutting business ties and cancelling contracts. The NBA has been struggling to deal with this unexpected emergency that could cost them billions; the Commissioner Adam Silver first offered apologies to China, which upset Americans who felt that the NBA, for the sake of their profits, had caved in to an irrational demand by an authoritarian government. So he made it clear that the NBA supported freedom of speech of people within the organization, which is the quintessential value of a democratic society. Of course, China didn’t like Silver’s stance at all.
In the meantime, the Brooklyn Nets (which happen to be now owned by Joe Tsai, a Chinese e-commerce tycoon who publicly “scolded” Morey for saying anything about Hong Kong publicly) and the Los Angeles Lakers were stuck on Chinese soil where they were scheduled to play two preseason games (and rake in an extra million dollars). Even though both teams came home safely, they “went through a difficult week” according to LeBron James, one of the most valued athletes in the entire world. For teams and players who did nothing wrong during their stay in China but had to pay the price as they saw their engagements cancelled in front of their own eyes, it was obvious that Morey made an “uneducated” move; “so many people could have been harmed not only financially, physically, emotionally, spiritually,” as per James. He further commented that “Just be careful what we tweet and say and we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negatives that comes with that, too.”
This “NBA China Crisis” accidentally revealed that even within the United States, and even among so-called “progressive” organizations like the NBA, standing up for democracy is becoming a multi-layered diplomatic minefield. Maybe at a player’s level, it is personal. It may be about exercising their own rights to pursue their interests and career. Maybe they felt that they should have the freedom to complete their China trip with no loss of personal revenue. Morey interrupted their freedom to profit, and therefore he had to compensate for their loss.
Adam Silver, as the head of one of the most powerful professional sports league in the U.S. had to present a different attitude. As he is the boss of a multi-billion dollar business endeavor, he was put in a position of representing the world’s most powerful democracy. Compromising on fundamental beliefs was a non-starter because it would have serious “consequences and ramifications” – as James said about Morey’s tweet – way beyond the NBA. Doing anything to Morey would have meant creating an irreversible precedent that an American organization could be manipulated by the Chinese government. Probably James didn’t think that far.
And then there was Daryl Morey who is with the Rockets, the most popular basketball team in China because of its connection to Yao Ming, an ex-Rocket and China’s first All-Star NBA player. It’s impossible to know Morey’s real intention with the tweet, but there’s no doubt that the events he accidentally triggered demonstrated the shockingly vulnerable status of democracy as we move uneasily towards the middle of the 21st century. According to ESPN, already in August, “the issue of China’s sovereignty had been drilled into Team USA players who traveled to China for the FIBA World Cup just weeks before. One player from USA Basketball told ESPN that he ‘couldn’t believe’ Morey would take on the issue with a tweet after Team USA had been warned about its complications.” The situation was already so tense that “Team USA was warned” that freedom of speech carried consequences in China. And it did, as Morey’s tweet proved. They were, like many other companies who were “scolded” by China for their political expressions, already standing on thin ice. China showed the NBA what happens when you were required to “shut your mouth and dribble” but fail to do so.
As the fellow NBA player Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics – who’s considered a “dissident” for his criticism of the authoritarian President of Turkey (among other serious harassments, his passport was taken away and his father was jailed in Turkey,) – symbolically suggested in his tweet, freedom is not free. It’s a stark reminder for all of us, so let it sink in: freedom is actually not free. And it’s looking to become even more costly.
Why is freedom becoming costlier?
If the situation was already getting tense, what was behind it? Of course, the protests in Honk Kong are the main issue here, but they are happening at the same time as other difficult problems rattling other regions: the issue of the movement of immigrants is becoming a burning question everywhere, triggering populism and far-right movements. The trade war is intensifying. Russia is meddling with election of other countries. North Korea is launching missiles. The Middle East is becoming very volatile. Europe hasn’t yet solved the Brexit conundrum. (And if people’s resentment is not enough, Mother Nature is also raging: the rain forests in Amazon are burning; floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires are intensifying all over the world, further damaging our finite resources.)
It’s not a coincidence that these things are happening simultaneously. Simply put, resources on this planet are dwindling, even though, or exactly because, the number of people who consume them keeps increasing. You may argue that global GDP is still growing, but the population is also increasing at a staggering rate, which includes a significantly larger middle class in emerging economies (It’s still rapidly increasing and easily outnumbering its counterpart in the “advanced” countries).
So essentially, we are all competing in a game of global musical chairs, in which participants are far outgrowing the number of available chairs. Considering the fact that there is only one Earth, we will run out of new chairs at some point, and we are already feeling the pinch. In many parts of the world that used to be decent places to earn good wages to support families, people are feeling left out and forgotten, fueling resentment that drives populist movements. Also, experts say that the next global recession is looming – as soon as 2020. Even though we are still on a growth trajectory as we speak in October 2019, recessions typically start like a roller coaster: when things max out, it start falling rapidly. The NBA players may not be sensing the risk yet because they have access to so much money right now, but wealth can evaporate quickly when the economy crushes. They may be feeling that Morey split their milk, but considering where the global economy is today, maybe the milk was destined to evaporate anyway. It was just the matter of time. (And as we speak, the Chinese economy showed the slowest growth in the last 30 years.)
A friendly reminder: economic crisis is also about crisis for democracy
The resource crisis is an economic crisis, and it is also a crisis for democracy. We can be nice to each other and respect democratic process only when we have enough resources collectively. When that is no longer the case, things can turn ugly. People instinctively react to secure their own interests, and in most cases, that means oppressing and rejecting competitors who wants their own share of the pie. When such an attitude is normalized, society loses tolerance and democracy evaporates. We may be getting there. Intolerant, authoritarian leaders are on the rise everywhere, reflecting people’s desire to secure their own share by excluding others. The NBA- China crisis was a wake-up call for impeding threats toward democracy as the economy deteriorates. If recession happens tomorrow, and if we are not prepared, things can become very ugly. Democracy and freedom is at stake.
History has faced this conundrum many times. There were deadly wars in which people fought for their share of the pie. But in today’s global tension, something is fundamentally different from the past, which is making LeBron James, Adam Silver and Daryl Morey take different positions, even within the same organization.
Whereas conflicts in the past were mostly at a national level, it may no longer be the case moving forward. We are living in a mind-bogglingly globalized world in which the U.S. and Russia could be allies in certain conditions, which would have been totally inconceivable 50 years ago. Today, financial ties are so intricately and stealthily established everywhere beyond borders that they can overwhelm or compromise the mission or principles of sovereign governments. Maybe LeBron James could earn millions of dollars in China without compromising his own freedom, and focus only on what interested him. At least, until very recently. In the meantime, China could exercise censorship even on foreigners as it extends its financial influence all over the world. In such a world, are the NBA and China partners and allies? Or partners with different interests? What does it really mean when parties with different agenda become partners?
Things can get murky quickly, but one thing is clear. Such intricate economic partnerships can survive under one condition: a healthy market. When the economy starts falling apart, you are immediately faced with fundamental discords, such as democracy and freedom of speech or not. The NBA-China saga just reminded us that those discords are becoming increasingly apparent because the economy is starting to decline. Maybe the honeymoon was coming to an end anyway. In addition, our world could look different moving forward, especially when some economically/politically powerful countries are not democratic today – how will things play out when the next global recession hits us? We shouldn’t forget that freedom is not free.
On Oct. 16, LeBron James said that he no longer wanted to talk about the China issue: “I don’t think every issue should be everybody’s problem as well. When things come up, there’s multiple things that we haven’t talked about that have happened in our own country that we don’t bring up.” He basically suggested that the political issues in China were foreign (whereas the economic ones were his) and wouldn’t affect his life in a significant way. Well, he might be too optimistic. As he aptly pointed out – albeit in an opposite manner – we are indeed living in a society in which “every issue is everybody’s problem as well.” We need to be very apprehensive about what’s coming next.