I was less than two years old when my mom took me to my first pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, which took place in 2003 following the deadly SARS outbreak and a steep decline in the housing market. At the time, it was the largest democracy march in the city’s history.
Now that we live in Bellevue, my mom spends a lot of time on Facebook obsessively tracking the violent conflict between pro-democracy protesters and the Hong Kong police force. On Oct. 1, an 18-year-old was shot in the chest with a live bullet, one of six rounds fired by police.
A report from Amnesty International offers evidence of torture, beatings, and other mistreatment of protesters in police detention based on interviews with nearly two dozen people who were arrested. A poll from the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed 90 percent of respondents supported an investigation into police use of force, and 80 percent supported universal suffrage.
In July, Chinese media conglomerate Tencent signed an exclusive $1.5 billion, five-year deal to stream NBA games, making it the league’s biggest overseas partner.
The league recently became involved in a public international controversy surrounding China, which started with Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the Hong Kong resistance. The league’s official statement described his action as “regrettable,” adding, however, that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
American developer, Activision Blizzard faced a similar conflict when they banned Hearthstone player Ng Wai Chung after he expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters in an interview.
On Tuesday, the NBA-China controversy was further publicized when Lebron James made a remark saying Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand” before sending his tweet.
Later, he clarified on Twitter that he was not commenting on the political situation itself, writing: “My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others…[Morey] could have waited a week to send it.”
Several players have pointed out that if a player cost the NBA millions of dollars and sparked international controversy through a single tweet, there would be serious repercussions.
James’ statement prompted understandable anger for many in Hong Kong—there are reports of protesters burning his jerseys in the street and chanting obscenities about James and support for Morey. James Lo, a web designer who runs a Hong Kong-based basketball fan page, said to the Guardian that “students, they come out like every weekend. They’ve got tear gassed and then they got gun-shot, like every weekend. Police beating up students and then innocent people, like every day. And then he just comes up with something [like] that.”
“Please remember, all NBA players, what you said before: ‘Black lives matter.’ Hong Kong lives also matter!” said 36-year-old protester William Mok as he addressed a crowd during a rally. James has worked hard to publicly address state-sanctioned killings of unarmed black men by police officers in the United States throughout his career.
American conservatives have jumped on the opportunity to criticize James and undermine the core issues he stands for.
On Wednesday morning, Fox News host, Jared Max said, “I think James is thinking about himself. I don’t think he’s thinking about what people in Hong Kong are fighting for in this case. It’s OK to tweet when it’s LeBron’s issue, but when it’s something that he’s not behind, then we have a problem?”
LeBron James is a pro athlete, not a politician. The far right is only pretending to care about the rights of Hong Kong’s people because an outspoken pro-black celebrity like James is expressing his perspective on the situation as a player. His most vehement critics over this issue are the same people who were telling him to “shut up and dribble” a couple years ago.
The NBA stood behind their players and coaches when they openly spoke out against President Trump in 2017 and the NBA Players Association stated at the time that “the celebration of free expression—not condemnation—is what truly makes America great.”
Right now in Hong Kong, young people are getting beaten, shot, and tortured in their fight for democracy and the basic liberties we Americans take for granted. Freedom has a price tag, and America’s most beloved institutions have sacrificed their values in exchange for Chinese money.