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By picking a fight with the NBA, the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping, seen here on Oct. 16, 2019, could well have squandered the opportunity that sports diplomacy presents.

KYODO/Reuters

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

The Chinese folk saying “lift a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet,” or its English equivalent – “to shoot oneself in the foot” – perfectly describes the self-defeating inclinations of dictatorship. And nothing exemplifies such inclinations so much as China’s recent effort to bully the NBA.

The row began when the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted (and quickly deleted) support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” China’s government blacklisted the Rockets; ordered the state-run television network to cancel broadcasts of two NBA games; and instructed Chinese companies to suspend their sponsorships and licensing agreements with the NBA.

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As the NBA’s largest international market, China expected the league to apologize for offending the Communist Party of China (CPC). And, initially, the NBA did just that. “We feel greatly disappointed at [Morey’s] inappropriate speech, which is regrettable,” the league said in a statement. “We take respecting Chinese history and culture as a serious matter.”

But that sparked outrage among U.S. lawmakers, who accused the NBA of choosing money over human rights. “No one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted. The NBA threw Mr. Morey “under the bus” to protect their market access, Senator Marco Rubio added, calling the move “disgusting.”

Under pressure, NBA commissioner Adam Silver then seemed to shift the league’s position: “Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”

In the end, it was China that had to back down. The authorities allowed a previously scheduled exhibition game to be played in Shanghai and ordered state media to play down the controversy. The lesson should be clear: Bullying is a surefire way to lose friends and make enemies in the West.

China may be a lucrative market for the NBA, but the NBA is also a very valuable friend to China. The country’s relationship with the league is one of the great successes in its cultural and commercial relations with the United States, and a powerful example of Sino-American “sports diplomacy.”

Such diplomacy has a storied history in U.S.-China relations. During the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships, the U.S. player Glenn Cowan boarded a shuttle bus with the Chinese national team. Rather than avoid him, as the Chinese team had been instructed to do, its top player, Zhuang Zedong, initiated a conversation with the American. The two players even exchanged gifts – an act of goodwill that garnered significant positive media attention.

Recognizing the diplomatic opportunity, Mao Zedong invited the U.S. team to China. The trip opened the way for the two governments to begin back-channel communications and, eventually, to normalize bilateral relations.

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Mao and President Richard Nixon did not squander the opportunity that sports diplomacy presented. But, by picking a fight with the NBA, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government could well have. At a time when Sino-American relations are in free fall, this is the last thing China needs.

To some extent, China’s response was probably a hubris-induced miscalculation. The government has effortlessly bullied some of the world’s best-known companies into submission after they offended its delicate political sensitivities.

China has used similar tactics to press Western governments into bending to its will. For example, it cut off high-level exchanges and curtailed business dealings with France, Germany and Britain when they hosted the Dalai Lama.

Similarly, after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, China suspended salmon imports from Norway (though the Norwegian government has no influence over the Nobel committee’s decision). China ended up getting its way in nearly all of these showdowns, with Western actors expressing remorse and seeking to regain China’s favour.

But hubris is only part of the story. Chinese officials have strong incentives to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, even at the expense of strategic objectives. The resulting modus operandi – called “ning zuo wu you,” which loosely translates to “rather left than right” – influences most official calculations. The decision to bully the NBA was more than likely taken by a party apparatchik eager to curry favour with CPC superiors.

With intimidation hardwired into the Chinese system, such self-defeating behaviour is likely to continue – and cost the CPC dearly. The more friends China turns into enemies, the easier it will be for the U.S. to assemble a broad coalition to contain its power and ambitions. At that point, the Chinese bully’s favourite tactic for defending its interests will become even less effective.

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Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.

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