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With players now defending Kyrie Irving by attacking Joe Tsai, what’s the reality?

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Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

In autocratic societies, whether Communist or otherwise, locals’ response to questions about societal failings is often, “it’s complicated.” It can absolve the government/regime while admitting there are indeed issues. It may not be illuminating but it’s often as far as a local can go.

For Joe Tsai, a true believer in what the Chinese Communist party has produced and also a man who helped bring a middle class to the world’s most populous nation with Alibaba, it’s even more complicated. Chinese by heritage, Taiwanese by birth, Canadian by citizenship and American by education, the 59-year-old is often at the center of cultural and political storms, starting with his reaction to then Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s “Free Hong Kong” tweet weeks after he took over the team.

Now, with his hardline stance on Kyrie Irving’s promotion of an antisemitic video, he has something new to cope with: criticism that paints him as hypocritical from a human rights perspective. The company he co-founded — and the main source of his wealth — has been accused by some of working with the Communist Party in its persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority which dominates in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Some have called it genocide. Somewhere beyond a million Uighurs have been sent to interment camps and blanket government surveillance is the rule. U.S. officials say they don’t have an accurate number of those imprisoned. There are few human rights issues of greater concern in the world.

Two days ago, Jaylen Brown who like Irving is a vice-president of the NBPA, touched on the issue when discussing the Nets treatment of Irving, calling out Tsai after his weekend comment that Irving has “more work to do” in meeting his and the Nets condition for return.

“His response was alarming to me, I tweeted that out (Sunday),” said Brown. “He didn’t say that the organization was working together to get Kyrie back on the floor. He said that he had more work to do. And our society has more work to do, including Joe Tsai. It’s 2022. It takes 10 minutes of time to see who these business owners, corporations, etc., who they’re associated with and who they’re doing business with, who they’re affiliated with.”

It may have been thinly veiled but it was direct. Brown wondered aloud about how much credibility Tsai has when, at least according to reports, he has been part of a system, a machine that has ground down a minority population.

“I’m vice president of the union, and it’s part of my job to protect our players legally,” Brown said. “And to see Phil Knight first come out and condemn Kyrie, and also see Joe Tsai say he has more work to do — I think it’s time for a larger conversation. And Adam came out and said in a statement that he doesn’t believe Kyrie Irving is antisemitic, and yet he’s still suspended indefinitely.”

It is complicated. A deep look at Alibaba and Tsai’s relationship with the Communist Party shows that while Alibaba has had a relationship with two companies identified as critical to the surveillance of the Uighurs — and in general has cooperated with the Chinese police — drawing a direct line from Alibaba and Tsai to the persecution is not so easy. It’s also not a 10-minute exercise as Brown would suggest.

The first detailed discussion of Tsai’s relationship with the party and the Uighur issue came in April when ESPN wrote of how Tsai was “the face of NBA’s uneasy China relationship.” In general description of Tsai’s position, the authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru wrote this:

Tsai has publicly defended some of China’s most controversial policies. He described the government’s brutal crackdown on dissent as necessary to promote economic growth; defended a law used to imprison scores of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong as necessary to squelch separatism; and, when questioned about human rights, asserted that most of China’s 1.4 billion citizens are “happy about where they are.”

Tsai might take issue with some of that, but in general that is an honest approximation of where he stands, particularly the last line. Tsai, like many defenders of China’s progress since liberalization of the regime began in 1979, will point to the country’s, how 800 million Chinese have been delivered from extreme poverty and how there is now a thriving middle class, whose development has been helped along by Alibaba and other tech giants. The growing power of tech in China is so great, in fact, that the party and President/dictator Xi Jinping has cracked down on them in the past two years.

The big issue for ESPN — and a number of U.S. and human rights officials quoted by the website — has been Alibaba’s investment in two companies that according to various reports helped track the Uighur population, the centerpiece of its persecution, Megvii and SenseTime. Alibaba invested in both and separately was found to have “included instructions on how to use software to identify Uyghurs.” The company told ESPN that it was “dismayed” and “never intended for the technology to be used in this manner.” The company also said it had “eliminated any ethnic tag on our product offering,” which as ESPN noted, was confirmed by human rights groups. As of the time of the ESPN report, Alibaba controlled 29.4% of Megvii and 7% of SenseTime, not insignificant percentages.

The company has said that it was a “passive investor” in the companies and has had no input in its strategy, technology or products. However, in describing the value of the investment in SenseTime back in 2019, Tsai did say this: “Our business at Alibaba is already seeing tangible benefits from our investments in AI and we are committed to further investment. Our strategic partnership with SenseTime will spark more innovation and create value for society.” (Emphasis added.)

Tsai has indeed been a key proponent of artificial intelligence at Alibaba but American tech companies have also prioritized it. And neither ESPN nor others have suggested that Tsai has had any role personally in the use of the technologies in Xinjiang. Moreover, a report by BuzzFeed back in 2019 (not referenced in the ESPN report) found that six American universities and at least 19 pension funds had also invested indirectly in the two companies. Among the universities was the University of Michigan and among the pension funds were those that finance teacher’s pensions in California and Texas, two of the biggest public investors in the U.S. The U.S. has since prohibited investments in either company.

Beyond the investments laid out in the two companies, a new book, “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era or Social Control” details the relationship between Alibaba and China’s police ... while also noting just how dominant Alibaba is in Chinese life.

For example, the authors, Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin, write about an Alibaba program called the “Magic Shield” which works with Chinese police on investigations and uses algorithms to scan Alibaba’s e-commerce sites for prohibited items from weapons to pornography. Items or services that appeared criminal would be forwarded to police (as happens in the U.S.) There is even an outpost on the main Alibaba campus in Huangzhou, Chin and Lin report, where police and staffers met to discuss transgressions, including those that were “terrorism related,” a phrase the book says is “typically used by Chinese authorities to refer to Uighur separatism.” Alibaba confirmed to the reporters that there was such an outpost but police only visit “occasionally.”

The book also quotes Tsai from a 2017 Wall Street Journal technology conference in Laguna Beach, California, where he denied that Alibaba was sharing large amounts of user data with Chinese authorities.

“I would disagree with with premise that the central government has access to this corporate data. That’s just not true,” Tsai said at the time. “If they want data from you, just like in the U.S. they have to have a reason.”

Of course, there are differences as the authors note:

Chinese police do have to submit something akin to a warrant to request data from an internet company, but unlike in the United States, they don’t need a judge’s signature. All that’s required is the approval of a senior police official. Also unlike in the United States, Chinese companies have no effective legal means to resist. A suite of vaguely worded laws enacted in 2015 and 2017 compel corporations to share data with the government.

They also note that Alibaba’s user data is far more detailed than say Amazon:

In the United States, Amazon is alone among the Silicon Valley titans in owning large troves of data on consumer spending. But even Amazon can only see how money is spent on its own platforms. TenCent and Alibaba, meanwhile, can see how users spend money across China. Through their other services, they can also see where users spend time, who their relatives and friends are, what movies they like, how much electricity they use and they like to do on vacation — a degree of behavioral insight that is breathtaking in its breadth and clarity.

Such comparisons of course are an issue in any discussions of the two country’s systems. Chinese law, history and culture differ greatly from the U.S. and comparing them from an American perspective isn’t always productive. The NBA and a lot of other U.S. entities accept that. Whether individuals — including basketball fans — have to is another thing entirely.

And there have been other instances where Alibaba has been involved in what human rights advocates see as aiding the surveillance state that is China. Early in the pandemic, Alipay, a sister company of Alibaba, developed an app for the Chinese government to help Beijing track those they viewed most at risk and limit their access to travel — including mass transit — if necessary. (Alipay handles at least some credit card transactions at Barclays Center.)

Alibaba has also played a role in making its hometown, Huangzhou, a “smart” city. Its AI-powered CityBrain platform helps the city government optimize everything from traffic to water management. In the U.S. that might be considered too intrusive, a threat to civil liberties and smack of surveillance gone wild, and there are, according to Chin and Lin, Huangzhou residents who have their own reservations. But for the most part it is accepted, part of the social contract between the party and the people that has led to China’s rise.

Over the past 12 years, the Nets and Barclays Center have been owned by a Chinese e-commerce pioneer and a Russian oligarch, both of whom have spent lavishly on the team. Their backgrounds have on occasion produced, as they have now, controversies that in part have reflected what’s going on back home in their authoritarian homelands. Mikhail Prokhorov ran for President of Russia in what many called a sham election, then cut back spending when relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorated following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. (He was never sanctioned by the U.S. then or now and is now a citizen of Israel. His grandmother was Jewish.)

And let’s be real, Jaylen Brown, a lot of the NBA (and other sports league) owners have their own skeletons in their closets, different shapes and sizes, whether they are U.S. citizens or citizens of pariah states. In defending Irving, are we talking about hypocrisy or whataboutism? It is, in fact, complicated.