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.