Doing business in China is nothing unusual for leading U.S. corporations, even for those that profess to work for human rights. However, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has become the focus of attention, due to its high profile as a business, the celebrity status of its employees and its support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The NBA’s response to criticism of its business in China is now more significant than ever as Election Day 2020 approaches, yet the league has remained largely silent.
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Follow the money
For some insight into the NBA’s silence on human rights abuses in China, consider the league in the context of other businesses. Not too long ago, the main advantage for U.S. companies doing business in China was access to an inexpensive labor pool, which plunged many into the murky world of labor exploitation.
The labor rights issue has become ever more fraught in recent years, as new evidence emerges of an intensive ethnic cleansing policy toward Muslim Uyghurs and other minority groups that involves forced labor in concentration camps. Last spring, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 83 global brands with ties to forced labor in China. The list includes the U.S. companies Apple, Gap and Nike.
Adding fuel to the fire is the growth of China’s middle class, leading to an increased demand for consumer goods, including NBA merchandise. Tesla and General Motors are among the U.S. car makers with a deep interest in the Chinese consumer market.
Betting on China, trade wars (and a global health crisis) or not
Even though 2020 has been disrupted by a trade war and the COVID-19 pandemic, there is still a strong bottom-line case to be made for U.S. corporations to continue fostering business in China.
Last year, Forbes senior contributor Kenneth Rapoza ran down the factors that motivate many U.S. companies to continue seeking growth in China, regardless of a trade war between the two nations. “For all-around emerging market manufacturing know-how, for reliability, for currency stability, for safety and for domestic market growth, China is No. 1. The rest are more like No. 100,” he wrote.
That explains why household names like KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other leading consumer brands have a high profile in China. U.S. companies that are not household names also do well there. In 2018, for example, the Indiana-based engine manufacturer Cummins reported that China accounted for more than a third of its engine sales.
Rapoza also pointed out that top-rated ESG (environmental, social and governance) funds have an interest in the Chinese markets, through investments in companies including Alibaba and Mengniu Dairy.
If anything, the global pandemic has added to the bottom-line incentive for doing business in China. Last year, National Public Radio cited Cummins spokesman Jon Mills, who explained that revenue from China can help balance a company’s ledger books if the market drops in the U.S.
NBA learns the hard way
Even while COVID-19 tore through the U.S. last spring, the Black Lives Matter movement forced more U.S. corporations to step up and advocate for human rights in the U.S., with the NBA and other professional sports leagues front and center.
That has led some critics to raise the question of why the NBA and its players have not used their high profile and celebrity status to criticize human rights abuses in China.
One answer is that they did, and they suffered the consequences.
A year ago, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morely tweeted, then deleted, a comment in support of protesters in Hong Kong. Reaction from the Chinese government was swift and furious, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue, including the loss of merchandise sales.
Partisan pressure on NBA over Black Lives Matter activism
Following its weak response to Morely’s Hong Kong tweet, the NBA drew a firestorm of media attention criticizing the league’s actions. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators also publicly lambasted the league for failing to stand up in support of human rights in China.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, though, the call for action has lost its bipartisan force.
Last June, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) wrote a letter to the NBA regarding its relationship with China. In July, she took credit for forcing the league to close its training facility in Xinjiang Province, a region where major concentration camps are reportedly located.
Perhaps for that reason, the Blackburn letter failed to attract the media spotlight for long, if at all. Nevertheless, in August Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote a letter concurring with Blackburn, and last week Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) issued a new letter calling upon the NBA and hundreds of other leaders in business and government to condemn human rights abuses in China.
“Are you willing to support a country committed to abusing and killing Muslim citizens in concentration camps?” Scott wrote. "Are you willing to stand idly by as Hong Kongers are stripped of their dignity and basic rights? If this was happening in America, what would you do?”
Why the Black Lives Matter movement will not fade away
Scott’s letter has also failed to attract significant media attention so far, though it has provided some pundits with an opportunity to criticize the NBA for supporting Black Lives Matter activism in the U.S. while failing to condemn human rights abuses in China.
However, the irony of Scott’s question — “If this was happening in America, what would you do?” — is striking in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has drawn renewed attention to the fact that mass incarceration, voter suppression, and other significant race-based human rights abuses still take place routinely in the U.S., more than 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were forced into labor in North America.
Adding to the irony is President Donald Trump’s failure to denounce white supremacy in the U.S. just last week, during the presidential debate in Cleveland.
How business leaders can follow the NBA’s lead
Yahoo Sports features writer Henry Bushnell summed up the situation last July when he argued that the failure to criticize human rights abuses in China does not, and should not, detract from the force of Black Lives Matter activism.
“To use the neglect of some injustice to detract from the fight against other injustice is to uphold all of it,” he wrote. “Change is local. Successful fights for it are often hyper-focused. Black Americans, some of whom comprise a majority of the NBA, are trying to lead one.”
“To support their fight, to affirm that Black lives matter, to do your part to dismantle systemic racism, is not an affront to Muslims detained in China, or families brutalized in Syria, or women denied rights in Iran, or LGBTQ+ people denied humanity everywhere,” Bushnell continued.
The NBA, for one, has not allowed itself to become distracted. Last month the league announced plans to use its venues as polling places, helping to ensure that voters can cast their ballot in person for the 2020 general election, while reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Those plans are still moving forward along with other efforts aimed at motivating voters to participate. That includes an in-house voter registration drive spearheaded by Oklahoma City Thunder guard and NBA Players Association president, Chris Paul, resulting in a sky-high voter registration rate of 90 percent among NBA players.
The message to other corporate leaders is clear: The Black Lives Matter movement will not fade away on its own, and it will not be shamed away.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, the fight for human rights and civil rights in the U.S. will become more important than ever, even as President Trump seeks to sow violence and confusion before — and after — Election Day.
The NBA and several other leading U.S. corporations have already stepped up to advocate for American democracy. Now is the time for more business leaders, not fewer, to raise their voices in support of that effort.
Starting at Noon ET Thursday, October 8, and for the following two Thursdays, October 15 and 22, we’ll be talking about business leadership during times of crisis at this year’s 3BL Forum – Brands Taking Stands: Business Elects to Lead. Be sure to register for free here!
Image credit: David Vives/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.