The power of sport has been underplayed by those contending that sport is merely a frivolous pastime for the relatively few who can afford the leisure of it. Recent events in Hong Kong and by extension in China, have once again proven this naiveite to be wrong. Months of mostly non-violent uprising by freedom of speech cherishing natives of the former British ruled enclave have been elevated to a whole new level of global prominence. This happened when a senior NBA executive from the Houston Rockets tweeted his support for the pro-democracy protestors. Interesting side note to this is the fact that Chinese superstar Yao Ming played for the Rockets between 2002 and 2011 boosting the popularity of both the club and the league in China. At present, business in China amounts to about $US4 billion annually for the NBA.
Although the initial response from the NBA and the Rockets was to distance themselves from the tweet – US bipartisan critique on this weak reply by the NBA facilitated a more considered response. NBA boss Adam Silver noted that the tweet was an ‘expression of free speech’ and as such conforming to American values. In Japan, where the Rockets played the Raptors, Silver told reporters that the NBA would not compromise its values on freedom of speech and that money was not the only thing driving them. In a world where most foreign companies would quickly yield to the demands of government and corporates in the biggest consumer market in the world, the NBA response at present has become quite remarkable.
Hong Kong, as a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997. However, it maintained its judiciary and separate (from China) legal system including rights of assembly and freedom of speech. This ‘Basic Law’ expires in 2047, and the protests in many ways are preludes to the decision-making process about the judicial and legal future of Hong Kong.
I admire the Confucian mindset of the Chinese people (work hard, delay gratification, care for current and future generations). I am in awe of the economic miracle instigated by the present and past leaders of China, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. I question top-down unilateral decision-making (as a principle: anywhere, any place, anytime). I fear and object to the withholding of (any) information that should be available to anybody wanting to make up their own mind (having said that, the powerful impact of non-evidence based/incorrect/propaganda and so-called fake news show how naïve and easily manipulated most of us are).
The power of sport – its global reach and popularity (in China as well) – has brought the issue of access to information and the freedom to interpret and express opinion about this information to the global front pages. Hong Kong is an enclave of cultural, political, social and demographic hybridity between Confucius and the philosophical genes of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Erasmus. In a way Hong Kong is the living proof that mixing the long term (head down, work hard, delay rewards) with the short term (enjoy now, live in context, make your own luck) is a way of living and institutional system (forgive my simplification but is it called liberal democracy!?) that works (and could work) for many generations to come.
The NBA and its stars have underestimated their power to influence, yet may have overshot the target. By solely focusing on how the Chinese government is trying to bring Hong Kong back into the fold, within their direct sphere of legal power, they may have missed the opportunity to acknowledge the miracle that has (and continues to) lift(ed) millions out of poverty.
The power of sport is exemplified by the fact that a tweet by an NBA Club manager created more global communication about the Hong Kong uprising than the protests themselves. Let’s keep Hong Kong the democratic and economic powerhouse that it is. The Chinese government could and should take the global response to discontent in Hong Kong to heart and consider bringing Confucius together with Erasmus – their values and philosophies align. Free speech, access to information, self-determination, and autonomy, benevolence, non-maleficence and justice will lead the way to long term prosperity for most. Then Hong Kong may well turn out to be the perfect experiment uniting the old East with the old West into cultural, social, and political unity.