China's NBA Free Speech Debacle Turned Out To Be A Prelude To Its COVID-19 Denialism

from the free-speech-saves-lives dept

Since time is a concept with increasingly less meaning, you may have forgotten that it’s been only five months, not five years, since the NBA’s dustup with China over Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” tweet.

In response to that controversy, a number of business-conscious — to put it generously — major sports figures distanced themselves from Morey’s tweet. Some went so far as to suggest that it wasn’t their concern or responsibility to discuss human rights violations outside their own country.

At the time, these responses were clear examples of craven, self-serving statements from people who were more interested in preserving their investments than speaking honestly about human rights in a country in which they have major financial interests.

But given the current moment, it’s clear that they weren’t just wrong on the ethics of the situation. Because while there are many unknowns about COVID-19 — like when this nightmare will end — we do know this: China censored information about the outbreak, which helped accelerate its spread. Suddenly the chasm between American citizens and China’s silenced whistleblowers doesn’t seem so wide.

The Associated Press reported this week that China’s top leadership became aware that COVID-19 would likely be a pandemic in mid-January — and sat on that information for nearly a week. As early as December, China was censoring keywords about coronavirus on social media. Reporters Without Borders chronicled the impact China’s stranglehold on information had on the pandemic, from threatening doctors trying to warn the public to arresting whistleblowers for “false rumors.” Dr. Li Wenliang, who lost his life to coronavirus, has become a martyr in China, his experience a warning of both the seriousness of this pandemic and the cruelties of the Chinese government’s repression.

None of this absolves other governments of their failures to adequately respond to COVID-19. Every official, whether in China or the United States, is responsible for their own actions. But had China not censored vital information about a deadly pandemic and hid what it knew, its people could’ve been better prepared and slowed the spread of COVID-19. According to Zhong Nanshan, “one of China’s most highly regarded epidemiology experts and the leader of the National Health Commission’s task force on the epidemic,” if China had taken appropriate action early on, rather than obfuscate and censor, “the number of sick would have been greatly reduced.”

China’s citizens — and people across the globe — would have had more time to respond. Whether that time was or would have been utilized responsibly is another question.

Back in October, no one in the NBA could’ve known what awaited the world just a few short months later. But revisiting that debacle now casts into even sharper relief the disgrace of it all.

After Morey’s tweet, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr stated: “None of us are perfect and we all have different issues that we have to get to and saying that is my right as an American…The world is a complex place and there’s more gray than black and white.” Suggesting Morey wasn’t “educated” on the situation, LeBron James warned that, even though we have freedom of speech, we should “be careful” about what we say.

And the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan said, “I want to have an opinion in America, there’s a civic duty to engage and do the right thing, but having an opinion on sovereign matters in other countries, it’s for those people to decide,” and concluded that “you have to respect the norms” of China. (Khan’s comments were particularly baffling given that many Chinese people have faced extreme consequences for “having an opinion on sovereign matters.”)

Shaquille O’Neal was one of the few to get it right. Shaq stressed the right to free speech, and added: “Whenever you see something wrong going on anywhere in the world, you should have the right to say ‘that’s not right,’ and that’s what [Morey] did.”

We should care about Uighur prison camps, forced disappearances, crackdowns in Hong Kong, suppression in Tibet, censorship of women’s rights activists, the Great Firewall, and mass surveillance simply because caring about human suffering is the right thing to do, regardless of its proximity to us.

But if basic morality doesn’t persuade us, maybe our current situation will. Censorship in China may seem like a faraway problem, but its effects will be felt globally for a long time to come. If that doesn’t convince us to care, it’s not clear what will.

Sarah McLaughlin is Director of Targeted Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The views expressed here are her own.

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Comments on “China's NBA Free Speech Debacle Turned Out To Be A Prelude To Its COVID-19 Denialism”

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Godfree (profile) says:

Credible?

In addressing the NBA/Hong Kong issue, the author, Sarah McLaughlin preaches about "self-serving statements from people who were more interested in preserving their investments than speaking honestly about human rights in a country in which they have major financial interests" when she herself has a major financial interest in beating this dead horse. Hong Kong was never about human rights. Even our own Cato Institute ranked it #1 in the world for freedom. It was about jobs, homes, and self-respect.

But I digress… "The Associated Press reported this week that China’s top leadership became aware that COVID-19 would likely be a pandemic in mid-January. As early as December, China was censoring keywords about coronavirus on social media." Nobody knew that it would be a pandemic in mid-January. The world’s leading epidemiologists, at the WHO said it would not. Only later did they change their minds. China, wanting a second opinion, asked Michael Levitt, a Nobel laureate and Stanford biophysicist. Three weeks later, Levitt told the China Daily News that the virus’ rate of growth had peaked. He predicted that the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in China would end up around 80,000, with about 3,250 deaths. As of March 16, China had counted a total of 80,298 cases and 3,245 deaths in a nation where 10 million die every year.

"Dr. Li Wenliang, who lost his life to coronavirus, has become a martyr in China". Dr. Li was an irresponsible man who saw a report to the Wuhan Health Department and told his friends on social media that ‘SARS is back.’ The result? 140,000 fled Wuhan and spread it further.

"According to Zhong Nanshan, “one of China’s most highly regarded epidemiology experts and the leader of the National Health Commission’s task force on the epidemic,” if China had taken appropriate action early on, rather than obfuscate and censor, “the number of sick would have been greatly reduced.”" Yes. The rule was, ‘if you encounter three cases of pneumonia of unknown origin you must report it (with a simple mouse click) to the CCDC. Local officials delayed the report from December 16 to December 27. That doesn’t sound like much but early detection makes a big difference.

"We should care about Uighur prison camps, forced disappearances, crackdowns in Hong Kong, suppression in Tibet, censorship of women’s rights activists, the Great Firewall, and mass surveillance simply because caring about human suffering is the right thing to do, regardless of its proximity to us." We should care about these things if they in fact exist. They don’t. They are invented by the people who employ writers like Sarah McLaughlin to spread mischief. Sarah’s employer, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, receives substantial funding from conservative private donors, including $3.5 million from anonymous conservative donors through Donors Capital Fund and DonorsTrust, $1.3 million each from the right-wing Bradley Foundation and Sarah Scaife Foundation, and about $1 million between the Charles Koch Foundation and F.M. Kirby Foundation.

Sarah might use her time and talents better by reflecting on this: of the 30 human rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration, China leads the USA in 26.

Just sayin’.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
nasch (profile) says:

Re: Credible?

We should care about these things if they in fact exist. They don’t.

You’re actually claiming that none of these things exist in China:

  • Uighur prison camps
  • forced disappearances
  • crackdowns in Hong Kong
  • suppression in Tibet
  • censorship of women’s rights activists
  • the Great Firewall
  • mass surveillance

Well I guess I know how seriously to take the rest of your comment then.

flyinginn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Credible?

I bet he doesn’t believe in Iraq WMD either. But on the point about delayed reporting: Aside from Dr. Wenliang’s suspicions, even the whistleblowers weren’t concerned until the first diagnosis of a cluster of abnormal flu pneumonias by Wuhan-based respiratory expert Zhang Jixian – December 26. First report by local doctors to Wuhan CDC – December 27. First report to WHO – December 31. WHO reported the information it had which initially was still inconclusive. So conspicuous China-bashing from US and UK, both of whom would love to have someone to blame for their own criminal negligence, is less than convincing.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Credible?

"Well I guess I know how seriously to take the rest of your comment then."

Given that "Godfree" has a profile which stands at a grand total of two posts, both summarily defending the glorious PRC as more respecting of human rights than the US…I’d say he might have earned his 50 cents for getting a few posts up but the blatant USSR-style propaganda spin points at the chinese PR department doing a sloppy job in training him.

The irony is that today China would present a better image outside if they simply said "Look, 95% of our citizens are well-fed, well educated, prosperous, happy. We don’t do freedom, we don’t do "human rights" and we don’t do concepts like "justice" well. Take it as is or move yourself off our soil".

Instead they pretend they’re enlightened defenders of truth and justice with a bowl of propaganda you couldn’t feed anyone who wasn’t raised to kowtow to the state since infancy. It’s as shoddy an attempt as the PR spun by old-style USSR-style commissars.

As a result of which every time China loses all credibility where it’d really be better off not trying to fervently deny and defend that which is undeniable and indefensible.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Credible?

What’s interesting is the obvious Chinese propaganda is written in excellent English (much better than Trump supporters for example). Makes me wonder about who this is. A highly educated Chinese national? A Chinese citizen living in an English speaking country? An English speaking native doing it for the money?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Credible?

"What’s interesting is the obvious Chinese propaganda is written in excellent English (much better than Trump supporters for example). Makes me wonder about who this is. A highly educated Chinese national? A Chinese citizen living in an English speaking country? An English speaking native doing it for the money?"

There should be some publicly available channel carrying the chinese mainstream news. Listen to the english-speaking anchorperson for awhile. You will find the presentation a portrayal of everything we consider news should be, all read out in absolutely perfect erudite english. As long as it didn’t concern internal news from China at which point you’re suddenly offered a great deal of conspicuous absence of political information.

When my relatives went to China once for vacation they were guided by a chinese tour guide who was perfectly fluent in swedish and well educated about swedish culture and tradition.

You can assume that anything part of China’s outside face will be a production worthy of art awards.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Credible?

"Once you find out who it is, can you have him write new instructions for half the stuff I buy off of Amazon?"

We could, but given his current vocation the risk exists that although the instructions might be written in flawless english the described steps might be along the lines of "Sit down with toes and knees touching the floor. Raise both arms above your head. Now bend your waist until your forehead and hands hit the floor and exclaim ‘All hail his imperial Majesty Xi Jin Ping and the glorious People’s Republic. Long Live!’ Repeat nine times."

I’m not sure the instructions would be suitable for the specific needs you have, is all I’m sayin’…

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Dr. Li Wenliang

Dying from the virus he was trying to warn people about made the chinese government look at sorts of bad, so yeah, it seems entirely believable that that’s what actually happened as the alternative is the chinese government came up with a story that left them looking bad, which would just be kinda out of character for them.

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