Across the world, it’s a common refrain when the citizens of an authoritarian society are asked about politics and human rights, particularly by a western reporter.
“It’s complicated,” they will say in their native language, hinting that they have their own thoughts about the society, but don’t want to go on the record and jeopardize their job, their personal security.
In a way, that’s what Joe Tsai was saying in his open letter to fans last week in China. While conceding that Rockets GM Daryl Morey has a right to “freely express” his opinion, Tsai also suggested the Houston executive should have understood the dispute in Hong Kong is a “third rail” in Chinese culture for historical reasons.
Indeed, he stated “that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.”
Tsai’s comments were heavily criticized in the U.S. and among those aligned with the protesters in Hong Kong as well those who’ve opposed the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs, the Muslims of Xinjiang province, and Tibetans. It didn’t sit well with many in his homeland of Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province.
Tsai is, as he’s said, “in the eye of the storm.” He’s executive vice chairman of Alibaba, the leading e-commerce company in China, which has ties to the government, as well as chairman of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s most influential newspaper which has had to walk a fine line amid the protests.
So Friday night’s protests both inside and outside Barclays Center should come as no surprise. And they are likely to continue. Tsai was not present, but family members were on hand.
Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters, mostly according to reports Hong Kong natives, were present in one section while others protesting the treatment of Uyghurs and Tibetans were scattered around the arena. Many wore masks to protect their identities from the prying eyes of Chinese intelligence services, which US officials say are increasingly vigilant in monitoring overseas protests of any kind.
Yashir Ali, a New York writer, provided details about the Hong Kong protesters in a series of tweets...
1. Producer and activist Andrew Duncan bought 300 tickets to tonight's Nets vs Raptors game and is hosting hundreds of Chinese pro-Democracy activists to protest the NBA.— Yashar Ali (@yashar) October 19, 2019
They're all wearing "Stand With Hong Kong" t-shirts pic.twitter.com/pIcUwSLaPB
2. Hong Kong politician and activist Nathan Law at the Nets Vs Raptors game wearing the “Stand With Hong Kong” t-shirt pic.twitter.com/k7QTe6lmMi— Yashar Ali (@yashar) October 19, 2019
3. Pro-democracy protestors at the Nets game. All wearing “Stand With Hong Kong” t-shirts. pic.twitter.com/RcgVafQ9WN— Yashar Ali (@yashar) October 19, 2019
5. More photos from the pro-democracy protest at the Nets game pic.twitter.com/uzkF9TbVvG— Yashar Ali (@yashar) October 19, 2019
(What’s with the Winnie The Pooh costumes? The character has been banned in China because bloggers have been comparing him to China’s president and as the BBC reported in 2017, “part of a struggle to restrict clever bloggers from getting around their country’s censorship.”)
The protests, which took place without incident unlike other NBA arenas in the aftermath of the Morey tweet, did have one effect. It got Kyrie Irving to talk about what happened in China and his feelings about the protests.
First, he spoke about last Wednesday’s meeting with Adam Silver in Shanghai. According to reports, it was Irving who spoke on behalf of his Nets teammates. He didn’t provide a lot of details of what was said.
“Listen, I stand for four things: inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace, man. So if that’s being conflicted inside of me, I’m definitely going to have something to say, and I left it in that room.
“And Adam, my teammates — I obviously speak for myself — but have a mutual respect of all the guys in the locker room. We talked about it as a team, we made a group decision and went forward to play the game. That’s just what it was.”
Irving spoke as well about putting the Hong Kong protests in context with NBA players concerns about domestic issues ... and American values.
“When you think about communities across the world, a lot of people would stand for world peace, Government gets involved, it impacts different communities in different ways. And the reality is as individuals it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in.
“Now, I understand Hong Kong and China are dealing with their issues, respectively. But there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America for me not to be involved in the community issues here as well.
“That’s one of those four pillars that goes in terms of the black community, colored people here in America. We’re fighting for everyday freedoms. So when I think about Hong Kong and China, the people are in an uproar; and for us as Americans to comment on it, African Americans or American Indians to comment on that, you’re connected nonetheless, especially when it impacts freedoms or world peace.
“So for me as an individual I stand up for those four pillars; and when they’re being conflicted I can understand why protesters come to the games. America was built on protesting. Built on slavery. But things happen all across the world. We’re just taking notice and social media just puts it right in front of everyone’s faces. And if you’re not thinking with a selfless attitude, you can come out and get yourself caught up in a few things. “
Some in the human rights movement would no doubt agree that human rights are indivisible ... that no one is truly free when until all are free. But in today’s world, that’s a difficult proposition.
In fact, it should also be noted that according to one knowledgeable source, Tsai and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai have given $10 million to the Reform Alliance, the Meek Mill/Jay Z effort to help reform criminal justice in this country. Wu Tsai, an American citizen, is in fact a partner in the alliance. (In her bio, she is listed as a “co-owner” of the Nets.)
Like they say, it’s complicated.
- Fans support Hong Kong, Tibet at Nets’ 1st game since China - AP
- Protestors at Barclays Wear ‘Stand With Hong Kong’ Shirts - Brian Lewis, New York Post
- Protests spark Kyrie Irving to weigh in on NBA’s China controversy - Brian Lewis, New York Post
- Nets’ Kyrie Irving irked by leak of private NBA-China meeting - Brian Lewis, New York Post
- Kyrie Irving finally spoke on China - Kristian Winfield - New York Daily News
- Kyrie Irving addresses China issues, closed-door meeting with Adam Silver - Malika Andrews - ESPN
- Kyrie Irving, the Nets rotation and Hong Kong protestors: 6 takeaways from the preseason matchup with the Raptors - Alex Schiffer - The Athletic New York
- Hundreds of pro-Hong Kong protesters fill Barclays Center section for Nets preseason game - Ryan Young - Yahoo! Sports
- NBA commissioner Adam Silver will face ‘retribution’ for defaming China, state media says - Catherine Wong - South China Morning Post