the new China syndrome

John Lanchester:

First, the Weibo accounts of prominent critics were ‘harmonised’ – in other words, deleted overnight. Then a conference was called for ‘Big Vs’, people with well-followed verified accounts, analogous to Twitter’s blue tick. At the conference, the newly formed Cyberspace Administration of China reminded the assembled big shots about their ‘social responsibility’ to the ‘interests of the state’ and ‘core socialist values’. Two weeks later, on 23 August 2013, the prominent investor and Weibo activist Charles Xue was arrested. He turned up shortly afterwards in a Chinese Central Television interview from his prison cell, weeping and apologising for his irresponsibility and vanity.

Such TV interviews have become a staple feature of the CCP’s internet crackdown, helped by a new law, passed in September 2013, which threatens three years in prison to anyone who shares a rumour that ‘upsets social order’ and is shared five hundred times or clicked on five thousand times. For people with Weibo followings well into the millions, the law effectively banned the posting of anything even potentially controversial. ‘Ever since, Weibo has been dead as a politically relevant medium,’ Griffiths writes. ‘Once, debate had raged there: sometimes wild, often polemical, clever if you were lucky – but always lively. Today, it’s as silent as the grave.’ Weibo continues to grow, mind you; it’s just that it’s now the usual entertainment news and celebrity bollocks.


Put all this together. Imagine a place in which there’s a police post every hundred metres, and tens of thousands of cameras linked to a state-run facial recognition system; where people are forced to have police-owned GPS systems in their cars, and you can buy petrol only after having your face scanned; where all mobile phones have a state app on them to monitor their activity and prevent access to ‘damaging information’; where religious activity is monitored; where the state knows whether you have family and friends abroad, and where the government offers free health clinics as a way of getting your fingerprint and iris scan and samples of your DNA. Strittmatter points out that you don’t need to imagine this place, because it exists: that’s life in Xinjiang for the minority population of Muslim Uighurs. Increasingly, policing in Xinjiang has an algorithmic basis. A superb piece of reporting by Christian Shepherd in the Financial Times recently told the story of Yalqun Rozi, who has ended up in a re-education camp for publishing Uighur textbooks in an attempt to preserve the language. One of his crimes was using too high a percentage of Uighur words. The system allows a maximum of 30 per cent from minority language sources; Rozi had used 60 per cent Uighur, and ‘China’ had appeared only four times in 200,000 words. Uighurs get into trouble for attending mosque too often or too fervently, or for naming their children Mohammed, or for fasting during Ramadan. There are about 12 million Uighurs in Xinjiang: 1.5 million of them have either spent time in a re-education camp or are in one right now.

To which Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA:

Actual quote: “We are dealing with a complex set of issues. And I will just add that the fact that we have apologized to fans in China is not inconsistent with supporting someone’s right to have a point of view.” A point of view — your opinion, man — the opinion that the people of Hong Kong have the right to demand democracy and that the Chinese communist government is determined at all costs to deny it to them — which Silver is quite explicitly disavowing by apologizing to the fans in China. The NBA loves it when their people are politically vocal, until being politically vocal costs the NBA money. Then they claim, as the owner of the Houston Rockets has, not to be political.

It’s interesting how little coverage of this issue there is on ESPN, and no editorializing — in text, anyway: maybe the on-air personalities are being more assertive. But my guess is that ESPN and the NBA are joined at the hip here, and are trying to figure out which way to jump. My second guess is that they’ll back the totalitarian Chinese regime.

And my third guess is this: The time will come when no major American media will tell the truth about what the Chinese government does, and my over/under on the moment when perfect silence has been achieved is five years.

UPDATE: Here’s what the NBA posted on Weibo: “We feel greatly disappointed at Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey’s inappropriate speech, which is regrettable.” Remember that “inappropriate speech,” in full, was: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

UPDATE 2: Since I posted this earlier today I have been browsing through the Twitter feeds of the major NBA reporters. Crickets. Not an opinion in sight, and these people have opinions about everything. There are two factors at work here, I think. The first is simple greed: NBA exhibition games are coming up in China, ESPN is sending crews there, there’s money to be had both in the near and in the far term. But the other factor is something I wrote about a lot in How to Think: Scott Alexander’s extremely useful categories of the Ingroup, the Outgroup, and the Fargroup. To people who run the NBA, how North Carolina portions out its public restrooms is A Matter of Vital Importance, because those Jesusland weirdos are the Outgroup. But the Chinese government persecuting and killing Uighurs? Whatever, man. Who am I to judge?

UPDATE 3: Brian Phillips:

There’s nothing edifying about any of this, except to the extent that it’s a useful reminder of where we are. We’re in a world where global capital feels perfectly comfortable teaming up with communist autocrats against democracy activists, as long as it keeps the cash registers dinging. Generally speaking, the hypocrisy of sports owners feels more depressing than the hypocrisy of other tycoon varietals, because sports owners represent a product that you’d like to believe has a meaning surpassing commerce. This is especially true about the NBA, because the NBA is so proud of its social conscience, or at least it was before its social conscience started threatening to cost it money.

For the most part, though, you’ll never be surprised if you assume that the devotion of sports owners to their own self-interest, and of sports leagues to their owners’ self-interest, is absolute. The NBA wants you to see it as politically progressive to the precise extent that your seeing it as progressive helps the bottom line and no further. Tilman Fertitta, the Rockets’ owner, occasionally goes on CNBC to praise Donald Trump, from whom he bought an Atlantic City casino in 2011, and to say things like “Obamacare does not work.” He has no problem then turning around and declaring that the Rockets are a “non-political organization” to make nice with China, because what he means by “non-political organization” is that he thinks hundred-dollar bills are nice, and also fuck you.