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Who is Joe Tsai? The New York Post gives it a shot

Brooklyn Nets v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

It shouldn’t be that surprising that New Yorkers are increasingly interested in Joe Tsai. He is who he is: one of the world’s richest men, co-founder of Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, owner of the Nets, Liberty and Barclays Center and now, with the eye-popping purchase of a $157 million apartment, once again, a bona fide New Yorker. And yes, of course, he is a defender of Chinese nationalism and by extension, the Chinese Communist Party.

The New York Post on Sunday gives it a shot, offering what’s a belated introduction to Tsai. The story relays a lot of what Nets fans know of the 57-year-old businessman. There are some new tidbits like the size of the gifts he and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai, have given their alma maters, Yale and Stanford, for neuro-science research and China policy centers, reportedly a billion dollars; how he became a Canadian citizen; and an adroit assessment of the role his wife, a Kansas native, plays in their relationship. “She seems to have an innate ability to be able to read landscapes well and ­really understand events,” as one source notes. (Or as another person who knows her told us, “She’s always the smartest person in the room.”)

Overall, though, the Post piece looks at Tsai more through the prism of his background and his ability to survive the CCP’s crackdown on tech giants like Alibaba, something co-founder Jack Ma didn’t. Tsai, writes Dana Kennedy, understood “international office politics” better than his partner and can live the high life without fear.

The Post claims that the effervescent Ma has not just been pushed out, but is being “‘re-educated’ by the Chinese Communist Party,” a description that may or may not be an exaggeration. Ma famously criticized the Chinese banking system back in October of last year as having a “pawnshop mentality.” Days later, Chinese regulators shut down a planned IPO of Ant Financial, costing Ma and Tsai billions. While hawkish voices quoted by the Post suggest that the party’s reaction was personal, that China’s hardline president Xi Jinping didn’t like Ma’s celebrity status, the more likely rationale is that Xi feared Ant, Alibaba, etc. were threats to the party’s control of its banking system ... and currency.

In any event, Tsai is now more the face of Alibaba and keeps a far lower profile that Ma ever did. As executive vice-president of Alibaba, he was out front when the company recently agreed to a a $2 billion fine. And as the Post notes, both during the controversy that followed Daryl Morey’s “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” tweet back in 2019 and in a more recent CNBC interview, Tsai has defended the Chinese government (aka the party) position on human rights and Hong Kong in particular.

Indeed, Tsai has never backed down from his basic position that the majority of the Chinese people support the party and dismiss the Hong Kong protests. He, like many in China, point to the great advances China has made in eliminating poverty and creating a viable middle class of hundreds of millions of people, the implication being that those advances should be considered a great human rights success. Different cultures, different histories, etc.

That of course is not what Tsai is best known for in New York. It’s his ownership of his basketball teams and their arena, his huge expenditures to keep Brooklyn at the top of the NBA, his and his wife’s wide-ranging record of local philanthropy that’s included the donation of $7 million worth of ventilators and PPE at the height of the pandemic and the creation of a $50 million Social Justice Fund after the George Floyd protests outside Barclays Center. And now, of course, there’s the purchase of that two-story apartment 60 floors above Central Park, the second most expensive residential purchase in New York — and U.S. — history. That got people’s attention whether they’re basketball fans or not.

But there is a bottom line. Tsai may be Taiwanese by birth, Canadian (and Hong Kongese) by citizenship, American by education and residence but he is proudly, unabashedly Chinese by heritage. Yes, he’s also a businessman with financial interests that depend on good relations with an increasingly hardline Communist Party that is in turn increasingly at odds with the U.S. whether it’s the Trump or Biden administration. However, make no mistake. What you see and hear out of Tsai on China is what he believes. It’s not about convenience, as the Post implies.

Fans’ willingness to ignore a sports team owner’s background and root for the colors and the players is nothing new. Some owners have had family fortunes derived from the sales of tobacco products and some, yes, have been Russian oligarchs. The history of sports is filled with it. You either accept it or you don’t.

The Nets, of course, are unique in all of this among professional franchises. Their last two owners, both of whom have spent lavishly on the team, have been capitalists operating in political and economic systems that are state-controlled and have histories of bad relations with the U.S. That unique status has already redounded against the team’s best interests.

In 2014, after Mikhail Prokhorov had spent a record amount on the team’s payroll, Russia invaded Ukraine and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia. Nets executives from that era claim Prokhorov began to pull back from his NBA commitments when that happened (although it should also be noted those same execs made some pretty bad decisions on their own.) Could that happen again? Could U.S. Chinese relations worsen to the point where it affects the team ownership? What about further crackdowns on Big Tech?

Tsai is, indeed, clever at “international office politics, as the Post notes, but larger forces can come to bear. As U.S. analysts have noted, Beijing is proud of its tech giants and their role in the world, but they are suspicious as well of their western values, style, governance. So it’s a tricky balance that Tsai must deal with. Can he? Itmay play a big role in the Nets future success.