As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters
As the Hong Kong protests enter their fifth month, the clash between the democratic ideals of demonstrators and the authoritarianism of Beijing is now being felt in corporate America. This week, the National Basketball Association faces the choice all companies working in China must face: Free speech or access to the massive Chinese market?
On Friday, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image with the popular protest slogan: “Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” He quickly deleted the message, but the damage was done: Chinese sponsors paused their deals with the Rockets, major Chinese broadcasters dropped Rockets games, and two exhibition games for a team affiliated with the Rockets were canceled, according to The New York Times.
The NBA is extremely popular in China, with tech company Tencent reporting that 490 million people watched NBA programming last year. The Rockets have a huge Chinese fan base because Chinese native Yao Ming played for the team for nearly a decade.
Concerned about losing the Chinese market, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta distanced himself from Morey, noting that Morey did not speak for the team and that the NBA was not a political organization. On Sunday night, Morey followed up with a tweet that read, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”
NBA spokesman Mike Bass on Sunday sent out a statement saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” But the Chinese-language statement the NBA posted on Weibo used much stronger language, saying it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment” and that Morey’s views “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
The NBA faced a backlash from politicians and Americans who saw the organization as choosing money over morals. In the United States, the NBA had allowed its players and coaches to express political views regarding racism, police shootings, and gun control. The league refused to hold its All-Star Game in North Carolina because of a bathroom bill that the NBA claimed discriminated against transgender people.
“Basketball fans and the American people more broadly should have absolutely no doubt about what is happening here: The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing.” Other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have also criticized the move, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a Democratic presidential candidate.
Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, a Taiwan-born billionaire and the co-founder of Alibaba Group, issued a statement criticizing Morey. He claimed that Westerners misunderstood that all 1.4 billion Chinese “stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland,” and added that the pro-democracy protesters supported a “separatist movement.” (Most Hong Kongers are not fighting for independence, but for China to give them the political autonomy it once promised.)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told a Japanese publication that he supported Morey’s right to free speech. In response, Chinese government-run CCTV announced Tuesday it would stop broadcasting NBA preseason games. “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA—and will continue to do so,” Silver reiterated in a statement Tuesday. “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”
Chinese censors also banned South Park, the irreverent animated show on Comedy Central, from the Chinese internet Monday after a recent episode mocked how filmmakers censor their own movies to appeal to the Chinese market. A character in the show gets caught bringing marijuana into China and is sent to a labor camp similar to the ones in Xinjiang in which authorities are holding more than 1 million Uighurs.
In response to their banishment, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone crafted their own fake apology, mocking how China had banned images of Winnie the Pooh because of memes that compared the President Xi Jinping to the Disney cartoon character.
“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the sarcastic statement read. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. … Long live the great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?”
U.S. action at last:
On Monday, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted 28 Chinese tech companies and government agencies for their involvement in the monitoring and detainment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region. The groups, which include Hikvision and Megvii Technology, will be barred from buying products from U.S. companies without approval from Washington.
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In a little more than a week, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding. Along with fireworks and a weeklong holiday, the festivities will include a large military parade that state media say will show off the Communist nation’s latest nuclear arsenal.
Yet amid the celebrations, China is experiencing several crises: Protesters plan large demonstrations in Hong Kong as the upheaval there passes the 100-day mark. The U.S.-China trade war is slowing China’s economic growth. The global community is pressuring China over its detention of minority Uighurs in Xinjiang. Perhaps most concerning, an outbreak of African swine fever is killing China’s pigs and has raised the price of pork by nearly 50 percent in the past year.
Pork makes up two-thirds of the country’s meat consumption. With the national holiday coming up on Oct. 1, pork is in especially high demand. Recently China opened its pork reserves, and on Thursday it auctioned 10,000 metric tons of frozen pork. For China’s leadership, fixing the pork shortage is a “national priority.”
While harmless to humans, African swine fever is a highly contagious disease that kills every pig that becomes infected. Currently there is no cure or vaccine. The outbreak began in August 2018, and since then the Chinese government says it has culled 1.2 million pigs to stop the disease’s spread. Authorities have also set up quarantine and travel restrictions in areas where the disease has been found and directed farmers not to feed pigs kitchen waste, according to The New York Times.
Yet many believe that large numbers of African swine fever infections have gone unreported, as safety standards are difficult to enforce in China’s millions of small backyard farms. The disease has spread to Vietnam, Mongolia, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea, and South Korea. In order to keep the virus out of Taiwan, airport customs officials fine visitors up to $32,000 for bringing pork onto the island.
On top of the pig problem, food costs overall have increased by 10 percent in China in the last year. One culprit is the ongoing trade war: China has placed tariffs on agricultural goods from the United States. Tariffs that went into effect on Sept. 1 imposed extra taxes on American products, including pork—but last Friday, state media announced China would exempt American soybeans, pork, and other agricultural products from additional tariffs.
Corn, which makes up almost 8 percent of China’s gross domestic product, is also feeling the blow of African swine fever. With the country’s live pig population falling by 40 percent (according to China’s agriculture ministry), corn demand could fall by 25 percent. That could wipe out at least 23 million metric tons of corn consumption, Lan Renxing, an executive at a major feed producer, told the South China Morning Post.
Spies for China?
This week the Reuters news service reported that China was behind a cyberattack on the Australian Parliament and the country’s three largest political parties before last May’s elections. Australia’s cyber intelligence agency discovered the attack in March but recommended keeping it secret in order not to hurt trade relations with Beijing.
In the United States, John Demers, head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told NPR, “The Chinese are our No. 1 intelligence threat.” He noted that three former U.S. intelligence officers have been convicted or pleaded guilty to spying for China in the past year. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has identified multiple additional cases of alleged Chinese economic espionage, according to NPR.
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Hong Kong, long the international financial hub of Asia, now possesses a certain Jekyll-and-Hyde quality. During the week, the city is subdued: Well-dressed men and women head off to their offices in shiny buildings, young people loiter in coffee shops, and the elderly exercise in the park. Yet on the weekends, masses of people don black clothing and march on the streets, calling for the government to respond to their demands of democracy.
At night, more aggressive young protesters wearing hard hats and gas masks face off with riot police who fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbag rounds. Then as Monday comes again, the city is back to its new normal: graffiti covered up with fresh paint, caution tape on damaged fences, streets filled with cars. Meanwhile, political disagreements have divided churches, families, and friends.
Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in an attempt to attract American attention: Some held American flags, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and held signs reading “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong” as they marched in the heat to the U.S. Consulate. They delivered a petition asking Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as a show of support in their struggle against mainland encroachment.
The act would require the United States to assess annually whether Hong Kong has enough autonomy to continue receiving preferential trade and economic benefits. It also bars officials responsible for suppressing Hong Kong freedoms from entering the United States and freezes their assets.
The bill, whose co-sponsors include Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Ben Cardin, D-Md.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has garnered strong support from both sides of the aisle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she “looks forward to swiftly advancing” the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also tweeted his support of the protests, saying, “It should not be business as usual until Beijing respects Hong Kong’s autonomy and political freedoms.”
“China’s leaders must either respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law or know that their escalating aggression will inexorably lead them to face swift, severe and lasting consequences from the United States and the world,” Rubio wrote in an Washington Post op-ed.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam spoke out against the U.S. bill on Tuesday, saying that “any form of intervention from foreign legislatures into Hong Kong’s internal affairs is most inappropriate. And we will not let [the U.S. Congress] become … a stakeholder in Hong Kong’s affairs.” China also views the bill as Western “interference” and has long claimed the protesters are backed by the United States.
Last week, Lam withdrew the controversial extradition bill that originally set off the protests. Yet most protesters viewed the move as too little, too late. The harsh response of the police to the earlier peaceful protests has increased the demands of the protesters: They now want an independent investigation into police brutality, a retraction of the “riot” label on the June 12 protests, the release of arrested protesters (police have arrested more than 1,000 so far), and universal suffrage.
Although thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully to the consulate Sunday, the day descended into violence. Some protesters destroyed the entrances to the Central subway station, breaking glass, throwing trash onto a stairwell, and setting a barricade on fire. Protesters are angry at the operator of Hong Kong’s subways, MTR Corp., for cooperating with the police in closing stations near protest sites and suspending its airport services last Friday. The closures forced protesters to walk for three hours to return to the city and stranded travelers at the airport.
Many are also calling for MTR to release surveillance camera footage from Prince Edward station on Aug. 31, when reporters video recorded elite police officers pepper-spraying civilians and beating them with batons. On Tuesday MTR released screenshots from the surveillance footage, but the company did not include any images of police using force.
Angered protesters have destroyed MTR property, vandalizing ticket machines, turnstiles, and CCTV cameras. At MTR’s Tung Chung station by the airport, protesters smashed windows, flooded the station with a fire hose, and spray-painted “Corrupt police” on the floor.
The increased violence has placed Hong Kong Christians in a difficult position. Some support the cause of the protesters, but don’t support how they carry it out. Last Friday, churches throughout the 18 districts of Hong Kong held prayer meetings for the city.
See WORLD’s timeline of the Hong Kong protests.
Early Rain update
Authorities in China released Early Rain Covenant Church elders Li Yingqiang in August and Matthew Su in April on bail pending trial. Although officials sent the elders back to their hometowns, they continue to hold Pastor Wang Yi in an unknown location. Wang’s lawyer is unable to meet with him. In a statement, the congregation noted that Chengdu authorities plan to appoint their own attorney to represent Wang against his will, a maneuver church members “strongly oppose.”