The free world has been dunking on LeBron James for more than a week now and it has not gotten old.
Still, something about it has made me uneasy.
Am I uneasy because King James requires some special grace, because I’m worried that we aren’t being full-hearted enough in our criticisms of him? No. Good God, no. Knock yourselves out, y’all. I’m uneasy because once you see clearly the influence the Chinese Communist Party can wield arbitrarily over you and me as citizens of the free world, you see that same power in a million other places. It is like a stereogram, one of those pictures for which our eyes must conquer their natural tendency to coordinate focus and vergence functions to see anything but a series of repetitive dots.
And once you see it, you cannot unsee it.
When I was 18, I toured China and Hong Kong with the University of Pennsylvania Symphony Orchestra. We played at the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival in a kind of ‘partnership’ between our university and a couple in mainland China and Hong Kong. We played Peking Opera that had never been orchestrated for western instruments before shockingly large crowds. We played to a black-tie crowd at a Watermelon Festival outside Beijing. I have a nice letter signed by Henry Kissinger sitting in a box in my attic somewhere.
This was almost 20 years ago, and this is the first time in a very long time that I’ve thought about the ID tags we were asked to wear at both of those events. We were artists, and it was important that we not be allowed to converse or interact outside of our station. Heaven forbid we befoul the air in the vicinity of the local and regional party luminaries in attendance. Our ID tags were religiously checked, even when using the nearby restroom – like visiting Bridgewater’s Westport campus. So we huddled, waiting – in many cases, deeply hungover – in a small green room for several hours as other groups performed. The university, hungry for anything that would increase its presence (read: funding), prestige (read: funding) and reputation (read: funding) on a global stage, happily agreed to any and all such restrictions.
Very small potatoes. And if you want to argue that a “when in Rome” attitude on someone else’s turf is more palatable than watching the Chinese Communist Party squeeze American institutions to influence the free exchange of ideas on our own shores, I won’t argue with you. It was their party, after all. But that isn’t my point. My point is that I am thinking about the power that has been exerted by the CCP on me for the first time in a while. I have seen and cannot unsee how long this has been going on in a million different places. It isn’t new. It always existed underneath the abstracted hand-waving explanations that convinced me to ignore it, like a colorful, repetitive mesh of dots.
And once you see it, you cannot unsee it.
I’m not alone. Here is what we are observing at macro scale:
- That it has been common knowledge – something we all knew that we all knew – since the Nixon years that by simply exporting capitalism and free enterprise, we would unshackle the forces of freedom in China.
- That this common knowledge is breaking.
Today, we all know that we all know that the influence of the Chinese Communist Party over what you and I do has been aided, not thwarted, by the nominal Chinese embrace of capitalism. I think that this – not the NBA, or Hearthstone, or Disney, but common knowledge about the distorting effects of concentrated power on the efficiency of market outcomes – is the real main event.
Still, before we consider what that means, it’s worth taking a quick look at just how the bullish narratives on US growth in Chinese markets turned on a dime.
Basketball – and by extension, the NBA – has easily been the most successful US sports export, despite playing a very distant second (or third, depending on how you measure it) to the NFL domestically. There are all sorts of reasons for this success, but they all boil down to one simple idea: when there are only five people on the court from each team, each of whom is visible and capable of significantly influencing the outcome of each contest, The Superstars are the Brand. The league’s stars exist, market and develop identities and brands independent of but still in service to the NBA. They have done so in ways that are remarkably in tune with the social and cultural zeitgeist that drives all sorts of consumer purchasing decisions.
In other words, the NBA is the perfect cultural export.
The coverage of and common knowledge about the growth of NBA-related brands in China has accordingly been almost universally positive for years. It will be no secret, but a glance at the narrative map below will tell you that narrative has always been about two things: how good and important it is to sell shoes. Over the twelve months prior to Morey’s tweet, there were 10 articles scored by Quid as being generally positive in sentiment (highlighted as green nodes in the charts below) for every 1 article scored as negative (red nodes).
US companies maximizing their footprint and growth in China was a Good Thing.
What does this world look like after Morey’s tweet and the subsequent response from China, the NBA and superstars like LeBron James? For one, the sentiment of articles about the NBA’s branding and marketing efforts in China went from 10-to-1 positive to 2-to-1 negative. But sentiment comes and goes. What is fascinating is how the language in the stories links them to language used in all manner of longer-cycle news stories, like the Hong Kong protests themselves (for obvious reasons), the Trump/China trade war, and importantly, other examples of CCP pressure being applied to US companies and individuals. The language devoted to discussion of economic growth, corporate opportunities and the freedom-enhancing power of Chinese embrace of capitalism?
Gone. Not diminished. Gone.
You’ll also note that the network map is much less tightly packed – that’s how the visualization demonstrates starker differences and distances between major topics and clusters. We used to all sing from the same hymnal about the NBA’s brilliant efforts in China. Now it is a battleground of language and competing missionary behaviors.
In short, the NBA-in-China isn’t just a cool growth story any more. Today we all know that we all know that it is tied up with big, global political, social, cultural, economic and human rights issues that the power concentrated in the CCP has prevented markets from reflecting clearly.
Blizzard Entertainment came under similar fire for withdrawing a prize won by a participant in a competition for Hearthstone, its World of Warcraft-themed deck-building game. The reason? He spoke up for Hong Kong protesters in a livestream, and Blizzard management came under pressure from the CCP to take action. Now, in case you didn’t know, Hearthstone’s publisher isn’t a Chinese SOE. It’s a subsidiary of Activision Blizzard, a US-domiciled, US-listed public company.
Despite (still) getting practically no coverage in mainstream publications, eSports is a huge and rapidly growing industry, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Over the same pre-Morey period, the narrative about eSports in China was uniform, cohesive and almost universally positive. It is exactly the narrative map you would expect from a rapidly growing, entertainment-focused industry with a supportive trade media that benefits from its growth and entertainment features (not unlike the financial press).
After Blizzard’s kowtowing to Beijing, as with the NBA brand narrative, the narrative around eSports in China became immediately less cohesive, dramatically more negative, and instantly linked by language and terminology to global political, social and economic conflicts.
Look, I’m not here to tell you that everything has changed for the NBA or Blizzard or any other company that has built its narrative around Growth in China. People will forget that they were mad at LeBron James and the NBA. And I’m talking weeks, not months, people. Sentiment will drift back. Sorry, but it’s true. People really like video games and basketball. On CNBC, by Q4 2019 earnings season, we will be back to “China Growth Initiatives” occupying bullet #1 on US corporations’ MD&A slides. People really like growing earnings. Imagine that.
But the awareness – in general – of what China can do? That can’t be unseen. What’s more, it is a nearly perfect fit with what we have described as the overarching common knowledge (as represented in political media) about the 2020 Election, namely, that it is about identity and unseating incumbent concentrations of financial and political power. Unlike those narratives, however, or those promoted by the drain-the-swamp chants from the Trump 2016 campaign, the China concern has universal appeal. This issue, and the inevitable conclusion that we “must do something about it” isn’t going to go away.
I, for one, am conflicted.
On the one hand, I can’t unsee what I’ve seen. It isn’t just unsavory or undesirable that China be in a position to so directly influence (and punish!) the free exercise of rights in the United States. It is untenable.
I also believe in freedom of action, thought and association. I believe in those freedoms as ends to themselves, untroubled by the need to justify them by evaluating their second-order effects. I don’t stop believing in those ideals when they concern the private commercial interactions between individuals and/or corporations. Not because I have some fanciful belief that unregulated, unrestricted trade across borders will always lead to universally optimal outcomes. Of course it won’t. But because I earnestly believe in rising tides, and in the generally superior function of the informal, unplanned, spontaneous features of markets to organize our collective activities.
I also believe that allowing companies formed by Americans to do business wherever they want will generally lead to better aggregate outcomes than some Very Smart Person with every incentive to parlay their $175,000 public servant salary into a multi-million dollar net worth who believes they have the prescience to dictate which domestic industries ought to be subsidized and retained and which oughtn’t to be. I will always be concerned that the cure for concentrations of power will be worse than the disease.
And y’all, I have good reason to be concerned. Remember, if you would, that any time someone celebrates leaning on the state and policy to solve the distortions caused in markets by concentrated power that the people making those decisions think things like this:
Still, no matter how conflicted or uneasy we may be, these discussions are coming. You and I won’t be able to avoid them. Anti-trust. Restrictions on trade and activities with foreign powers like China. Abolishing billionaires. Maybe even trimming the power of the state (LOL, sorry, just seeing if you were paying attention). This isn’t a temporary topic. Like it or not, this IS the zeitgeist.
So what’s the answer?
Clear Eyes. We see and reject the meme of Yay, Capitalism! , which tolerates no dissent from the idea that mostly-free enterprise is the panacea that will seep in to overturn dictators and tyrants. We do so knowing that the meme form bears little resemblance to the simple belief that unstructured, democratic social organization which funnels rewards to risk-takers is a magnificent, proven mechanism to make men and women wealthier and more free.
Let me say this more clearly for my fellow small-l market liberals: we must be willing to see and identify concentrations of power and their effects without fear that doing so necessarily implies our consent to a state policy-based solution that might be worse.
Full Hearts. We recognize that neither we nor anyone else can be objective about which concentrations of power we deem distorting. Our determinations will reflect our posture and beliefs about a great many things. We will be tempted to see our own conclusions as self-evident and justice-affirming. We will be tempted to see others’ conclusions as attempts to engineer society in their own image. That’s the effect of the widening gyre. But even when everything in our head is telling us that the person we’re arguing with is using the power exerted by China or Facebook or the Banks or Big Government as an excuse to re-engineer society to suit their personal preferences, we listen and treat those arguments in good faith until they have proven otherwise.
Long after we’ve forgotten about the forced rewriting of Disney movie scripts, or the maps of China that ESPN uses on their Sportscenter background, or access bans by gaming and social media companies, this debate will be with us. For those of us who really, truly, earnestly believe in the power of capitalism, we can either lean on the meme of Yay, Capitalism! to thwart all comers, or we can engage in good faith.
We’re in the latter camp.