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In CNBC interview, Joe Tsai talks Nets, social justice, China

In a lengthy interview with CNBC live from Barclays Center. Joe Tsai touched on several subjects including tonight’s Game 5 vs. the Bucks to social justice, anti-Asian bias, player empowerment and China’s human rights ... along with Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant that’s the source of his enormous wealth.

Tsai’s defense of China, particularly of Hong Kong’s controversial national security law, is likely to re-ignite the criticism he faced in October 2019 when he tried to explain the historical context of China’s anger following Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting Hong Kong democracy protests.

From a Nets — and Brooklyn — perspective, Tsai spoke about how he’s been surprised by how owning a team is not just about the sport or the business, but as a “social institution.”

“One thing I realize when you own a sports team is that it’s larger than a sports team,” Tsai told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin. “It’s a social institution. You’re doing it for the fans, for the broader population. I’m glad we’re situated in Brooklyn because we have the best fans in the world.

“And having this building, Barclays Center, kind of fortuitiously we have this square or plaza in front of us with some empty space. So, this became a place where people could gather, focus on whatever social cause they want to focus on. This building has been the site for us to hand out food in cooperation with food banks. It’s been the site of vaccinations. It’s been the site of voting and obviously with the last year, after the George Floyd incident, people protested for social justice, against racism. And I think that’s very, very important. Seeing all this happen organically in front of Barclays Center, that was great. I felt very, very good about it.”

Tsai admitted that the larger context of owning a sports team was a bit of a surprise.

“I didn’t,” he said when Ross Sorkin asked whether he expected it. “I guess four years ago, I didn’t. I had no idea,” Tsai said. “But the NBA is very interesting. I think it’s a quite interesting sort of economic proposition. In addition to all this glitzy fanfare, when you look at the players, they are huge mega superstars.

“But the business side of things, is this also quite attractive, in that team values are rising every year. But before I came into this, I had no idea that this was going to work the way it did.”

In discussing player empowerment, Tsai talked about James Harden joining the board of Saks Fifth Avenue’s online component as an example of how players have “leverage” now across the board, in sports, business and the pursuit of social justice.

“I don’t think you should see players as these one dimensional people,” Tsai said. “They happen to excel and basketball, but they also care about what they want to do outside of basketball, or maybe post-career in the NBA. And it’s pretty natural that they realize how much influence and power they have, and the fans that they attract, they can leverage that to market whatever they want. And I think it’s great.

“By the way, I didn’t advise James Harden on getting onto the board of Saks; he did it himself. And I think it’s a great thing. I mean, look at the fashion walk coming into the tunnel, right? We all these guys with, all the NBA fashion now has become a thing, something that my kids, my two sons and my daughter, they follow all the time. They care about what these guys wear before the game.”

His most controversial comments came in response to questions that Ross Sorkin asked about China’s human rights policies. Tsai, who maintains residences in Hong Kong and La Jolla, California, defended the imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong, which after being returned to China in 1997, had been largely exempt from such measures.

In general, he defended his position by saying that U.S. and western criticism doesn’t take into account that “different cultures have different values and mores.” Moreover, he said that the Chinese population largely supports the government because of the alleviation of poverty which defenders of the regime assert is a human rights achievement in itself.

“The China that I see, the large numbers of the population — I’m talking about 80 to 90 percent — are very very happy with the fact that their lives are improving every year. When I started Alibaba in 1999, the GDP (gross domestic product) was $800. Today, it’s over $10,000. And if you talk to a parent in China and you ask them, ‘are your children going to have a better life than you, most of them will say, ‘absolutely yes. They’re going to be educated, they’re going to find good jobs. the economy is expanding.’”

Tsai twice asked Ross Sorkin to be more specific about human rights abuses, but the CNBC reporter didn’t bring up the biggest human rights flashpoint, Beijing’s treatment of the nation’s Muslim minority, the Uyghurs. It’s has been likened by some to genocide.

Tsai did talk extensively about Hong Kong where the new national security law has led to the arrest and jailing of pro-democracy protestors ... and criticism from western governments, including the U.S. under both Presidents Trump and Biden.

As he did back in October 2019, Tsai tried to put the law and Hong Kong protests in the context of Chinese history.

“What is this for? It’s against sedition. It’s against people who advocate for splitting up Hong Kong as a separate country. These are things that are not allowed. You know why? Hong Kong used to be a colony (of Great Britain). A few hundred years ago, China lost Hong Kong to the Brits because of the Opium War — the British wanted to sell opium into China — and as a result of some battles, China had to carve up Hong Kong and give it up. This is a very kind of scarring history of China, having foreign powers come in and carve up your territory.

“So if you put yourself in the Chinese people’s mindset, if you’re a Chinese citizen, I look at this history and I want to make prevent this carving up of territory. I think Hong Kong should be seen in this context.“

Tsai said as well that the national security law has “stabilized” the situation in the city. Critics, on the other hand, say it’s simply repressed legitimate dissent.

The Nets owner also spoke about his role in establishing The Asian-American Foundation which is working to end discrimination and violence against Asian-Americans who he said were often the “scapegoat.”

“More than a year ago, I started to notice rising anti-Asian sentiment mainly because of COVID,” Tsai explained. “Everybody thinks COVID comes from China and a Chinese person, I felt it personally and then there was a period of time when every day when you woke up and see a new report of anti-Asian hate crime.

“So a group of us Asian-Americans got together. We formed The Asian-American Foundation and one of the problems we are trying to solve is if you look at the Asian-American community in America, everything is okay with Asian-Americans as long as things are going well. Asian-Americans play by the rules, prosper together with everyone else. But if there’s a crisis, there’s a pandemic, there’s a war, or if there’s an economic downturn, Asian-Americans get scapegoated.”

Tsai openly criticized President Trump last year for his characterization of COVID as the “Chinese flu” or “Kung flu,” calling him “the guy in the White House.”

As for tonight, Tsai said he’ll be sitting courtside opposite the Nets bench and he expects to see fellow billionaire Marc Lasry, the Bucks owner, at the game. When asked what’s the best seat in the house, Tsai said Steve Nash already has it.

“Yeah, you know what, I think the best seat in the house is where Steve Nash sits. Because he’s got the whole gameplan going. He’s got formations and where he wants players, right. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Tsai said. “But I’d just love to be in that seat and also have this brain, think through him.”