Gordon Campbell on China’s ability to infringe free speech in other countries

Foster-imageLuckily for us, China seems to have no interest in rugby, netball or cricket. Therefore, New Zealand is probably safe from the amazing erosion of those cherished American constitutional rights to free speech that China has just ripped to shreds in the course of its concerted attack on NBA basketball in general and on the Houston Rockets in particular. The saga began a few weeks ago, when the Rockets manager Daryl Morey sent out a private tweet expressing his personal support for the Hong Kong protests. “Fight For Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong !” Morey tweeted on October 4th. Ka-boom ! China went ballistic.

As China expressed its outrage, the offending tweet was removed, Morey apologised, the Rockets apologised, and the NBA apologised for an American citizen daring to hold a view to which Beijing objected, and for expressing it publicly at home in Texas. The NBA’s initial act of contrition on October 6th went like this:

We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable. While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ education themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them. We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Regardless, Beijing threatened to withdraw CCTV television coverage of any and all of this season’s NBA games. Big name sponsors in the US, and in China piled on with their own forms of pressure. Ads were pulled, Rockets’ merchandise burned by Chinese fans etc. As the furore built and built, the NBA got caught between trying to appease the Chinese authorities, while also appeasing its domestic critics who were equally outraged by the NBA’s craven surrender to a foreign authoritarian state.

By October 19, NBA chief executive Adam Silver was trying to find a middle ground – blame Twitter ! – in an interview with Kyodo News. First, Silver defended Morey:

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” he said. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have….I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear…that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”

Then Silver immediately swivelled, and sympathised with China’s outrage:

“There are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities…Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.”

But hadn’t it all been about the money, and wasn’t it all indicative of the growing importance of the China market to US multinationals?

Responding to criticism that the NBA put its economic interests ahead of defending Morey and his right to express his views, Silver was clear. “What I am supporting is his freedom of political expression in this situation,” he said…… I can’t ultimately run the NBA based on trying to satisfy everyone on Twitter….And I will just add that the fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view.”

Which overall, is not a bad attempt at pushing a herd of camels through a very small needle’s eye. Briefly, it seemed that the NBA had put things back on an even keel. No such luck. Yesterday, Lebron James – currently, he’s basketball’s biggest star – weighed into the controversy with comments that could have been scripted by the Chinese Communist Party:

“I don’t want to get into a … feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke,” James said before a preseason game at Staples Center. “And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and we say, and what we do, even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that, too.”

Yes, free speech is great – except when it deviates in a misinformed way from the official party line. America’s much vaunted cultural “soft power” in sports, movies, music, fashion etc – clearly has a soft underbelly that’s very vulnerable to pushback, if that overseas market is big enough. In the meantime, at the next RWC press conference in Japan, could someone please ask Steve Hansen what his feelings are about the Hong Kong protests?

Footnote: In Hong Kong, protesters have reportedly been burning Lebron James’ merchandise. So it goes on.

Trump’s fake remorse

Welcome back to the weird zone. US President Donald Trump is imposing sanctions on Turkey for carrying out the invasion of Syria. Yep, that’s the same invasion that Trump tacitly approved barely a week ago. The limited set of weak US sanctions go nowhere near fulfilling Trump’s boast that he would “ destroy” the Turkish economy if its forces misbehaved. If anything, the sanctions will only strengthen Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power by giving him a convenient excuse – it was the Americans’ fault ! – for Turkey’s failing economy.

[Even] in the face of reports of Turkish atrocities and other offenses, Trump slapped Turkey’s wrist on Monday, announcing that he would levy sanctions against a trio of government ministers and the country’s steel industry. It’s a far cry from the economic havoc he promised—and [it] comes as tens of thousands of Kurds are fleeing, Islamic State jails are emptying, and U.S. credibility is in tatters.

The sanctions announced Monday target three Turkish officials: the ministers of defense, energy, and interior…. Trump also said he would pull out of talks to reach a trade agreement with Turkey and would put tariffs on Turkish steel back where they were this spring. But critics say those measures are just as likely to strengthen Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they are to hurt him. The Turkish economy is currently undergoing a historic downturn, and Trump’s sanctions give Erdogan a perfect bogeyman on which to blame his troubles. Trump’s milquetoast measure may be an effort to forestall tougher sanctions legislation under consideration in Congress.

At the same time, Trump tweeted blame at the Kurds for deliberately releasing Islamic State prisoners. In fact, it seems to have been Turkey’s proxy militias inside Syria that have been guilty of doing this, and not the Kurds.

As Turkey wages a violent campaign against Kurdish fighters and civilians across northeastern Syria, Turkish-backed proxy forces with ties to extremist groups are deliberately releasing detainees affiliated with the Islamic State from unguarded prisons, two U.S. officials confirmed to Foreign Policy.

The claim pours cold water on U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion on Twitter that the Syrian Kurdish fighters tasked with guarding the prisons released the detainees to grab U.S. attention after the Defense Department ordered all U.S. troops to evacuate the region.

Keep in mind that these Syrian militia allied to Turkey who have been (a) arbitrarily executing Kurdish prisoners and civilians and (b) deliberately releasing Islamic State fighters back onto the battlefield are the same rebel forces that for years, the American hard right has been praising as freedom fighters and showering with funds. ( Supposedly, these militia were a brave alternative to the Assad government in Syria.) No surprise that they’ve turned out to be the murderous pals of Islamic State – and equally unsurprising that Trump is choosing to run cover for them.