American corporations, like NBA and Blizzard, tell us on one hand that China is evil, but on the other hand, they do business with China. But, when the political and economic converge, the American Middle Class lashes out.
Two separate events regarding China’s political-economic impact on American consumer industries happened in October 2019.
One instance was Daryl Morey, the general manager of the NBA team Houston Rockets, tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests. The Chinese government, and mainland China were not happy about this, especially because the Houston Rockets are the most popular NBA team in China.
The NBA’s reaction to this was tepid, trying to appease China without pissing off Americans too much, which didn’t work well. This mobilized American basketball fans to pressure NBA officials and players to double down on being anti-China.
Then, their heads really exploded when Lebron James made a statement on Daryl Morey’s statement on the Hong Kong protests:
“We all talk about this freedom of speech. Yes, we all do have freedom of speech, but at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself. I don’t want to get in a word sentence feud with Daryl Morey, but I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually. So just be careful what we tweet and what we say and what we do. Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech, but there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too.”
The pro-Hong Kong, anti-China crowd took it as Lebron James selling out to Chinese capitalist interests. They took particular umbrage with the use of the word “uneducated”.
But in reality, a lot of Americans are VERY uneducated about China, and especially China’s relationship with places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, regardless of their opinions. The outrage about James calling Morey uneducated is really about towing the national-political line. They’re saying “no sir, you, in fact are uneducated, for not explicitly endorsing and supporting these protests.” It doesn’t matter how “uneducated” you are, supporting Hong Kong is the educated (ie ideologically consistent) answer.
No matter what you think about the Hong Kong protests, if you’re an American, you should know one thing: supporting China in this situation is the most sacreligious thing you can do. In the US, supporting China regarding the Hong Kong protests is more ideologically heretical than just about any geopolitical, foreign policy position you can take, except maybe supporting ISIS.
But we should look at what James was saying, because it’s less ideological than his critics would have you believe. James simply is aware of how capital works, and made a functional argument.
For example, James said, “we all do have freedom of speech, but at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, and you’re only thinking about yourself.” James isn’t claiming Morey is wrong, or right. It’s not an evaluation of Morey’s claim, it’s an evaluation of the impact. The impact is harming the NBA’s large China market, which potentially harms the NBA’s flow of income.
When James says, “you’re not thinking about others,” he’s not talking about Chinese or Hong Kongers, he’s talking about other people with an invested interest in profit being generated by the NBA.
James continues, “I believe [Morey] wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. And so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
James’ critics zoomed in on the “emotionally, spiritually” part, because that’s the level their anti-Chinese sentiment is rooted. They feel emotionally hurt because their cultural masters are prioritizing a competing market. But the “emotionally, spiritually” stuff is James rhetorically hedging his bets. His point is that it’s financially harmful, to both James and Morey, as people who benefit from the NBA.
The anti-James position is that he’s a sell-out to Chinese (or even funnier – “Communist”) money. James is betraying democracy and siding with money. They’re right on one level, but their framing and point of reference is wrong.
Lebron James did side with money. He doesn’t want to disrupt China because money comes from there. But what Americans don’t realize, is that’s what capitalists, and people who benefit from capitalism (like Lebron Jamees), have always done. The difference is that siding with money has historically always meant siding with the US.
Now that siding with another country means more money, the American Middle Class feel betrayed as consumers. But nothing, except where the money flows from, has changed.
So while Lebron James is “selling out” to Chinese capitalist interests, you could just as easily say Daryl Morey is “selling out” to American capitalist interests, and Lebron James has been “selling out” to American capitalist interests his entire career.
The other example with Blizzard is more substantial because it does have material impact on a common person.
After a Hearthstone tournament, a Hong Kongese player called “blitzchung” put on a mask and made a statement supporting the Hong Kong protests. The hosts who were interviewing him were visibly concerned by the repercussions of this and kept their head down.
Blizzard then took away the prize money that blitzchung had won in a tournament, and banned him for a year from competitive play. They also banned the broadcasters running the interview.
People were really upset about this, so Blizzard reversed their hasty bans, but also did so in a lukewarm way that didn’t really backtrack on their China stance in general.
I’m more sympathetic to this issue than the NBA issue. The NBA issue feels like it’s mostly a melodrama between the rich. Morey showed his ass because presumably he’s ignorant about the business implications of going against China. The Chinese government lashed out because they can’t have an entertainment product they’re promoting go against party policy, in the same way the US would never promote a foreign sports organization if people within it opposed the US government. Lebron James is acting as the rank-and-file capital beneficiary, trying to keep the others in check, and the NBA is the organization trying to culturally balance both spheres of influence to preserve capital flow.
With the Blizzard situation, the characters involved are different. It’s basically one company, who not only makes the games people play, but run the tournaments for those games. The Chinese government, and an individual player.
Morey made a less provocative statement on Hong Kong than blitzchung did. But at the same time, blitzchung isn’t an employee of Blizzard, nor does he work for an organization affiliated with Blizzard and he doesn’t represent them.
If the entire political economic system isn’t going to be overhauled, an easy fix to this situation would be force Blizzard to give up their competitive esports division and have that be run by another company. The current situation is like if the company that manufactures basketball equipment also ran the NBA.
But the problems are more underlying than that. As long as the US keeps capitalist investment in China, and China’s economy continues to grow, the contradictions between competing interests will intensify.
Americans are struggling with cultural stuff regarding China, because they’re realizing how much a world power China now is. But that genie has been out of the bottle for 20+ years, and there’s no going back. The only ways to go back is something like going all in on the trade war with China, but that in and of itself would completely shift the global economic landscape.
Even then, China still has enough autonomy that the US definitely can’t stop China’s growth, and intensifying the China trade war would cut the US out of the biggest source of capital flow, which most American capitalist don’t want. Some want the trade war to tip minor things in their favor, but none want to be removed from their overall trading position with China.
Ultimately, I’m trying to analyze why the internet blew up about this. If you looked at the situation from a foreigner’s perspective, it would probably be confusing because there was little material impact from these situations.
That’s because the impact lies in the consumer sphere, not an economic sphere. Since the American Middle Class perceives their class conflict as existing in the cultural, consumerist realm, this issue of consumers not getting what they want is elevated to the highest level of political issue.
You may be thinking, “but this has everything to do with politics, it’s about Hong Kong and China’s political relationship.” Yes, it’s political in its root issue. But then why didn’t reddit meltdown about the protests in Haiti? Ecuador? Lebanon? Etc. They’re all happening right now.
If the Haitian government was effecting US consumer goods in a way perceived as negative by American consumers, then Americans would be as upset as they are about China. Without that, they don’t care.
The issue is, the only country that has the characteristics necessary to influence American consumer patterns is China. China is a large (enough) economy to intersect significantly with the US, and they have a national ideology that counters the US.
What this tells us is the contradictions created by American capitalists regarding China are finally coming back to bite them in the ass. They have been pulling a “China bad…. but good for business” routine for so long, which has mostly worked in their favor. It has kept Americans ideologically distant from China, but allowed the US economy to benefit from China. But now that some of the American middle class’s prized industries (sports, video games) are being impacted, the American consumer feels like China is stealing their prized entertainment.
Blizzard, as a profit-seeking venture, wants more money, and Chinese consumers give them a TON of money. Nerds, entrenched in consumerism, can only do small-scale boycotts. Blizzard already considered that would happen and already picked the larger consumer base.
To close, I read an article from CNBC, where Mike Pompeo commented on China’s relation to US capital.
Kevin Breuninger writes:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that it is “completely inappropriate” for China to retaliate against U.S. businesses whose employees have commented on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Asked if U.S. companies should be criticized for making profits in China in light of that government’s censorship efforts, Pompeo told CNBC, in an interview that aired in part during “Squawk on the Street”: “Look, every company’s gotta make its own set of decisions.”
This is the central point that makes the American capitalist position untenable. American capital needs China to sustain growth. This is the functional implication of Pompeo saying “every company’s gotta make its own set of decisions.”
If the US government benefited from withdrawing capitalist interest from China, they would have demanded it long ago. But the US state, capitalist enterprise, and related state apparatuses benefit from capitalism, so the US will never withdraw from China, at least not totally, unless something else drastically changes.
So the US government would rather extract value from China, and then finger-wag China about how they’ve been a bad boy. The US government is clearly behind the times, because they’re attempting vintage imperial gestures, while China has made clear they aren’t effected by those gestures.
This means the contradictions between American cultural elements, capitalist interest, and the geopolitical conflicts between the American and Chinese state, are only just starting.
The dialectics intensify yet again.