LeBron James Was Disappointing on China. Expect More of the Same.

Photo: Zhong Zhi/Getty Images

On January 10, 2018, a 49-year-old Omahan named Roy Jones pissed off the Chinese government. At the time, Jones was working overnight shifts as a Marriott customer-care manager, where he made $14 an hour responding to people from the hotel chain’s various Twitter accounts. In practice, at the time, the bulk of his shifts were spent triaging thousands of tweets from spambots trying to scam rewards points from a Marriott-NFL promotion. “We would be underwater for days or weeks on end,” he later told the Omaha World-Herald, scrolling through tweets directed at Marriott accounts, responding to even the bots. On the night of the 9th, Jones scrolled by a tweet from an account called @FriendsofTibet, congratulating Marriott for listing Tibet as a separate country from China on a survey it had sent out. Presumably by accident, though he has no memory of doing so, Jones “liked” the tweet from the official Marriott account. He clocked out of his shift and headed home.

A day later, a top Marriott HR executive got on a plane to fire him.

Jones had, quietly and inadvertently, exacerbated an international incident. Chinese nationalists were already furious that Marriott’s survey (which had been created by a contractor) had listed as separate countries four regions the People’s Republic of China considers to be its territory — Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. A day after Jones’s like, the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administration admonished Marriott to “seriously deal with the people responsible.” Regulators ordered Marriott to close its Chinese booking website and app for a week; Jones was interviewed and fired. “This is a huge mistake, probably one of the biggest in my career,” Craig S. Smith, president of Marriott’s Asia-Pacific office, told China Daily a week later in an interview. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson released a fawning statement reading, in part, “We don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China and we do not intend in any way to encourage or incite any such people or groups.”

I was reminded of Roy Jones on Monday night, watching LeBron James try to navigate his own encounter with Chinese irredentism. A week earlier, while NBA teams were playing exhibition games in China, Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, had tweeted an image in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and quickly found himself, like Jones, the instigator of an international incident. Morey, one of the NBA’s most successful and widely respected GMs, is a rather more visible employee than Jones, and though it was reported that the Rockets considered firing him, he managed to escape the axe. But not the expected self-abasement: He, the Rockets, and the NBA all apologized. James, the most famous basketball player on the planet and an outspoken political activist in the U.S., finally spoke to American reporters a week later, after returning from China. “I believe [Morey] wasn’t educated on the situation at hand and he spoke,” he said. Better than “I don’t support anyone who subverts the sovereignty or territorial integrity of China,” I guess?

Conservatives who’ve been critical of James’s activism around American politics in the past almost immediately deployed his vague comment to cast him as a hypocrite, and, as disingenuous as that particular line of attack might be, we can admit that James’s answer was not the clear, politically informed statement we might have hoped for. (James later clarified in a tweet that he wasn’t “discussing the substance” of Morey’s tweet, suggesting vaguely that he was concerned for the safety of NBA employees or players in China.) But it is the kind of statement we should start to expect, not just from hotel companies and Hollywood studios but from actors and athletes we otherwise might think of as activists — people whose status as celebrities and brand representatives makes them attractive ammunition in an increasingly global war. If James was not a paragon of moral righteousness, it may reflect less ignorance or greed than a general wariness at being fashioned into a weapon for a series of geopolitical conflicts in which he is not, and does not want to be, an active participant.

You could think of Jones’s job, not to mention James’s integrity or Marriott executives’ dignity, as victims of what Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman call “weaponized interdependence,” or the use of “interdependent relations” — like the intertwined economies and supply chains of China and the United States — to wield power. As China’s economy has grown over the past two decades, its government has leveraged its irresistibly vast consumer market (and, in some cases, its dominant industrial sector) in its efforts to project its political values to the world — in particular, its contentious sovereignty over legally and practically autonomous territories like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Non-Chinese corporations that want access to Chinese manufacturing or Chinese customers — and they all do — are obligated to express respect for Chinese “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The processes of globalization were intended to enmesh political, economic, and communications infrastructure across national borders so as to promote productive relationships and cooperative diplomacy. But, as Eric Levitz has pointed out, the result was not some kind of flat geopolitical terrain across which liberal democracy might roll unimpeded, but a new balance of power, with new asymmetries and advantages. For most of the past few decades, the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of China” was something most Americans barely ever thought about, let alone “subverted.” The questions of Taiwanese independence, Tibetan autonomy, or democracy in Hong Kong were delicate subjects of American diplomatic wrangling, but not the kind of pressing geopolitical issue your average Omahan (or your average NBA forward) would feel obligated to attend to. Now, if you work on any public-facing component of an international brand, from overnight Twitter management to T-shirt design to actual brand marketing, you had better be able to draw a map of China from memory — including Taiwan, including China’s claimed territories in the South China Sea, including the disputed border region of South Tibet.

This isn’t merely China asking companies to obey its laws within its borders. After all, Twitter is banned in China, and yet Morey’s and Jones’s activity on those platforms triggered a sharp rebuke from Chinese officials. Rather, China has been trying to enforce a regime of censorship and propaganda globally, making use of American corporations’ reliable spineless venality to ensure compliance. What this means in practice is that American citizens working for American companies are increasingly compelled to censor themselves on political questions like that of Hong Kong’s autonomy — and that Chinese critics and dissidents are themselves silenced, or, worse, erased, by American and European multinationals hoping to avoid Chinese nationalist anger.

What does this look like in practice? We have a pretty good sense already, just taking a look at the news from the past few years. A month after Jones was fired, Mercedes-Benz apologized on the Chinese social network Weibo for quoting, in a car advertisement posted to its official Instagram account, the Dalai Lama, whose popularity in the West and arguments for more autonomy in Tibet have made him a deeply unpopular figure among Chinese nationalists. (Instagram is banned in China; the ad was intended for the American and European markets.) In May 2018, Weibo users discovered that the Gap was selling a T-shirt with a map of China that failed to include Taiwan and other regions claimed by China, forcing Gap to release the immortal statement “Gap Inc. respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.” (The shirt was being sold in Niagara, Canada; it seems to never have been for sale in China.) Later in 2018, American Airlines, Delta, and United acquiesced to Chinese requests and removed Taiwan from their booking websites. (You could book a flight to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, but the word Taiwan was removed from the sites entirely.) United was told that refusing to mark Taiwan, Macau, or Hong Kong as Chinese territory on booking websites would affect its corporate social credit score, which could “lead to investigations, the possibility of frozen bank accounts, limitations on local employees’ movement and other punishments,” according to the Times.

So far this year, Swarovski, Tiffany, Givenchy, Coach, and Versace have all offered elaborate apologies for offending various Chinese territorial or political sensibilities. “Never have I wanted to disrespect China’s national sovereignty,” Donatella Versace wrote in a signed note posted to her Instagram in August. (You have to imagine her saying it in that luxurious Italian accent.) She was apologizing for Versace T-shirts implying that Macau and Hong Kong were independent, photos of which had gone viral on Weibo, which makes me wonder a bit if fashion companies should stop making T-shirts involving China at all.

And then came Morey’s tweet. What the NBA has revealed this week is a dynamic that has been established in Hollywood for years now. America has long used its outsized cultural and economic importance to enforce its cultural and political values around the world, even to the point of political censorship. (The Global Gag Rule, intermittently implemented since 1984, prevents NGOs that advocate for decriminalizing abortion from receiving U.S. funding.) But now that its economy is deeply interwoven with China’s, and now that China has demonstrated a willingness to weaponize its supply chain and its consumers, a strange new world is emerging for Americans — one in which our sensibilities are not the only ones that matter. Movies are routinely rewritten or edited to satisfy not just the tastes of Chinese consumers but the demands of Chinese censors. According to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the James Bond movie Skyfall “had to remove a scene in which James Bond kills a Chinese security guard because Chinese regulators were unwilling to tolerate a Chinese citizen being killed by a foreigner.” In the Doctor Strange comics, a character called “The Ancient One” is Tibetan; in the Doctor Strange movie, she’s “Celtic.” “If you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people,” the screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, told Double Toasted. (Cargill later clarified that his “original statements were my own personal musings about a character” who he found complicated to depict for a variety of reasons, and that he had no part in casting decisions.)

In a particularly meta example, CBS censored a segment of the streaming show The Good Wife that explained how and why American entertainment companies self-censor on China. (The Good Wife isn’t even shown in China; it was banned in 2014.) A trailer for the Top Gun sequel released this summer revealed that the iconic leather jacket worn by Tom Cruise’s character had changed slightly in the 23 years since the first movie was released: a prominent patch showing a Taiwanese flag had been removed. I wonder why?

You don’t have to have a particularly dystopian mind-set to see what happens when media consolidation meets Chinese pressure. Already anchors on ESPN — ostensibly a news outlet — were forbidden from speaking about Chinese politics, even when discussing the week’s biggest sports story, according to a memo obtained by Deadspin. ESPN is, like Marvel, owned by Disney, which is anxious to keep getting its Tibetan — I’m sorry, Celtic — superheroes into Chinese movie theaters. (Or, even better, to be the first U.S. company with a streaming service on mainland China.) Disney, it’s worth noting, also owns ABC News, just as Comcast owns both Universal and NBC News, and just as soon-to-re-merge Viacom will own both Paramount and CBS News.

You could take it a step further, if you wanted. China has already compelled Apple to remove not just the apps being used by democracy activists in Hong Kong — including the news website Quartz’s app — but even certain emoji: As of the most recent version of iOS, Hong Kong residents can no longer access the emoji for the Taiwanese flag. What happens if China leans on Apple to remove the Taiwanese flag emoji elsewhere, like in the U.S.? Or in Taiwan itself? Apple was willing to go toe to toe with the FBI over encryption; is it brave enough to close off a billion-consumer market over a colorful icon?

For now, it’s unlikely to come to that. The Times reports that the Chinese government is “dialing down the clamor” over the NBA — in part because of fears that the anger could hurt the high-level trade talks going on in Washington, D.C. China needs the U.S. — its capital and its consumers — in the same way the U.S. and its corporations rely on China. And while there are an increasing number of American consumer goods  — like prom dresses — more or less exclusively made in China, and from which China could theoretically cut Americans off in the event of a direct confrontation, such action would equally hurt the Chinese manufacturers.

Which might help explain why this situation feels particularly strange to Americans: It’s a rare geopolitical dispute in which we’re deeply involved, but only as passive participants. The situation with James and the NBA doesn’t really reflect a proxy war between China and the U.S., neither of which are interested in directly confronting each other. Nor is it even it a war between China and the NBA, whose business the Chinese government would like to participate in. What the NBA is experiencing is a war between China and its critics, dissidents, and pro-democracy activists, in which the NBA — alongside many other multinational corporations — is less a participant than the territory on which the war is being fought. It’s a war that is going to get worse as China more forcefully asserts control in the region, and as American corporations line their pockets while looking the other way. The real victims in these cases will be activists seeking to maintain autonomy and democratic structures in the face of the People’s Republic’s imperial ambition. But as Roy Jones will tell you, it’s no fun being a battlefield, either.

LeBron Was Disappointing on China. Expect More of the Same.