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On CNBC, Nets owner Tsai doubles down defending China ("the average citizen is very hopeful about the future") and Hong Kong's national security legislation

OK, the big news today, as the tabloids tell us, was Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant's epic, full-game performance last night, with an absent Kyrie Irving and a subpar James Harden, to power a comeback, leading the team to a 3-2 playoff series edge over the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The series now returns to Milwaukee for a sixth game; a seventh, if necessary, would be played in Brooklyn on Saturday, June 19, at 8:30 pm.

But in the wake of the more-than-sports discussions centered around the Nets and the NBA, and in anticipation of a book being published about that next week--Matt Sullivan's Can't Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets' Superstars of Tomorrow--let's take a closer look at what the team owner says.

Lots about China, but sports gets the focus

Unsurprisingly, given the strictures on sportswriting--and the audience for the sports page--a CNBC interview yesterday with Brooklyn Nets owner (and Alibaba tycoon) Joe Tsai got boiled down by the New York Post into Nets owner Joe Tsai ‘had no idea’ what he was getting himself into, focusing on the arena and the team.

From the New York Post article:
“One thing that I realize, when you own a sports team is it’s larger than a sports team: It’s a social institution,” Tsai said. “You’re doing it for the fans, you’re doing it for the broader population. I’m really glad we’re situated in Brooklyn because we have the best fans in the world. And having this building Barclays Center here fortuitously we have this square or plaza in front of us with some empty space.
Well, of course he has to say "we have the best fans in the world." As to "doing it for the broader population," well, as long as it aligns with their business interests.

And yes, the plaza is fortuitous because the planned and promised flagship tower at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, which original architect Frank Gehry dubbed "Miss Brooklyn," never got built. Hence my description last June of an "accidental" town square.

From the Post:

“So this became a location for people to gather and focus on whatever social cause that they want to focus on. This building has been the site for us to hand out food in cooperation with food banks. It’s been the site of vaccinations. It’s been the site of voting. And obviously with the last year after the George Floyd incident people protested for social justice against racism. That’s very, very important, and seeing all this happen organically in front of Barclays Center, that was great. I felt very, very good about it.”

Yes, organically, because there were no events at the arena, but the playoffs, as I wrote, trump a protest.

The all-purpose China defense, and a benign billionaire

The Post summarized Tsai's "defense of Chinese policy" by quoting him as saying "different cultures have different values and mores," which is both true and vastly inadequate, since human rights are supposed to serve as a bedrock prerequisit.

It's remarkable to observe the contrast in billionaire Nets owners. (Bruce Ratner wasn't a billionaire, by the way, and never owned a majority of the team outright.) The Russian Mikhail Prokhorov cultivated an almost cartoonish image as extra-tall, exotic-accented ladies man and party animal, who gained wealth thanks to monumentally skeevy-but-in-the-past machinations in Russian industry. He tipped big.

Tsai is a family guy with an Ivy League education, homes in multiple continents, very much immersed in the business world but also ready to step up as a philanthropist here for Asian-Americans, racial justice, and criminal justice reform.

He made his wealth less murkily--though Alibaba "had to pay a big fine" for anti-competitive business practices and fellow co-founder and Chairman Jack Ma is lying low--and sounds enormously reasonable and comfortably progressive, until he's not.

Deflecting a "hard question"

Host Andrew Ross Sorkin asked, "So here's a hard question for you.. How do you think about your role as a leader here in the United States on issues around, Asian Americans, Black Lives Matter, voting rights, all of that. And whether and how you can speak out about for example, human rights abuses in China. It's a hard one, I know."

Tsai offered a lawyerly response: "You have to be specific on what human rights abuse you're talking about. Because the China that I see, the large number of the population, I'm talking about 80-90% of the population are very, very happy with the fact that their lives are improving every year."

That's likely not untrue, but that kind of metric can mask--and not just in China--significant societal horrors.

"When I started, Alibaba in 1999, the GDP per capita was $800 in China today is over $10,000," Tsai continued. "And if you talk to a parent in, you know, in China, and you ask them, Are your children going to have a better life than you are? right, most of them will say, Absolutely yes. They're going to be educated, they're going to find good job, the economy is expanding, right. So, I'd like you to be more specific on that."

Though it's not a direct parallel, let's note that percentage represents a shift from Tsai's notorious 10/6/19 Facebook open letter in response to the tweet (later deleted) by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," in which he claimed the country was completely unified.

"The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united," Tsai wrote at the time, "when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable."

Looking both ways

Sorkin followed up yesterday, noting that some critics, including Sen. Marco Rubio (F-FL) suggested it was hypocritical for companies to take a stand, for example, on voting rights in the United States while ignoring abuses in China.

"Yeah, I think American companies, CEOs, understand this very well, which is different cultures have different values and mores," Tsai responded.

He's not wrong, given that American companies are willing to operate in various countries where human rights are not respected, and American consumers--despite publicity about the conditions of production--have not shied away from, say, buying iPhones.

What's notable is how little Tsai seems troubled by it or even ambivalent, though that might reflect his immersion in the Chinese business world. After all, as Upton Sinclair famously stated, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

"And in China you have different set of values, you also have a very different political system in that one single party dominates the governance of the country, which, whether you like it or not, there are some great benefits," Tsai continued. "Like, China has managed to build a terrific infrastructure, because there's no politicking around whether you should build a highway from point A to point B. So, these are, these are all the benefits and the bottom line is you have to look at the results--are people happy. When I look at China, the average citizen is very hopeful about the future. They're happy about where they are. And, you know, I think that's really important."

So, the end justifies the means--and if some fraction get trampled, it's OK?

As I tweeted, "Didn't plan2 get into geopolitics today, but didn't @BuzzFeedNews win a Pulitzer for its work 'to expose China’s vast infrastructure for detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslims in its Xinjiang region'?"

Let's remember Tsai's social justice commitment statement from September, issued in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests:
Our mission is to use our platform to bring people together around a shared commitment to inclusiveness, justice, and equal opportunity. Our goal is to promote a society where people of all backgrounds can acknowledge differences and share common values without fear. We will promote a culture of belonging, and our community will be a place for dialogue, respect, and empathy.

Values of "inclusiveness, justice, and equal opportunity" obviously go out the window when some fraction of the population's interest gets sacrificed in the name of progress.

About Hong Kong

Sorkin followed up, "But you read, you read the same headlines that I do about some of the human rights issues now."

"I live in Hong Kong, right, so everybody is worried," Tsai responded. "Well, over the last year, they imposed the National Security Law. Hong Kong is one of the very few places that did not have national security legislation in place. What is this for? It's against sedition, it's against people that advocate splitting up Hong Kong as a separate country."

"These are things that are not allowed. You know why? Because Hong Kong used to be a colony, you know, a few 100 years ago, China lost Hong Kong to the Brits, because of the Opium War, the British wanted to sell opium into China. And as a result of some battles, China had to give--carve up Hong Kong gave it up. This is a very scarring kind of history of China, having foreign powers come in and carve up your territories."

Amnesty International has a slightly different view:

The law is dangerously vague and broad: virtually anything could be deemed a threat to “national security" under its provisions, and it can apply to anyone on the planet.

The Chinese authorities forced the law through without any accountability or transparency: it was passed just weeks after it was first announced, bypassing Hong Kong’s local legislature, and the text was kept secret from the public and allegedly even the Hong Kong government until after it was enacted.

...Immediately after the law’s passage, authorities started to use it to crack down on legitimate and peaceful expression.

It helps business

"So if you put yourself in the Chinese people's mindset, you know, if you're a Chinese citizen. I look at this history, I want to make sure that we prevent foreign powers from carving up our territories," Tsai told Sorkin. "I think Hong Kong ought to be seen in that context, you know, I think there's a lot of criticism of, you know, the democratic freedoms or freedoms of speech as being surpressed, but overall, since they instituted the National Security Law, everything is now stabilized."

The world "overall" carries a lot of freight in that sentence, since "stabilized" also means, as Amnesty International put it:

This draconian law is so vague it prevents anyone from knowing how and when they might transgress it and has consequently had an instant chilling effect across the territory.

Many Hongkongers who were regularly sharing news online about the protests since June 2019 have shut down their social media accounts for fear of violating the law

Bringing it back home

"In 2019, when people were protesting on the streets. I was actually afraid to walk onto the street. You know why? Because I speak Mandarin, and they were targeting, every person that spoke Mandarin because they would assume that you come from the mainland," Tsai continued. "You know, well I actually grew up in Taiwan well, so, you know, they speak Mandarin there. And so I actually felt physically threatened with with the these protesters, right."

That may be so, but a lot of Hong Kong people feel threatened, too.

Tsai thinks like a businessman: "So I think that we'll have more stability. Hong Kong is going to be fine. You know why? Because it's free market economy. When you invest in Hong Kong, free flow of capital, you put money into the Hong Kong Stock Exchange today and in Hong Kong dollars, tomorrow you can take it out in US dollars... It also has the most benign tax system... the income tax rate is only 15%. And then there's no capital gains rate, no taxes on capital gains, dividends."

A few comments on NetsDaily

One observed that Tsai offered "a double standard when it comes to Hong Kong" and serves as "an apologist for another people’s repression."

Another said, "Joe Tsai has been a great owner for the Nets" but "I don’t want to get into his opinion about global affairs, let’s just say I’m not a fan of Joe Tsai, the Chinese Nationalist."

"Regardless your political views, Joe Tsai did a brilliant job in this interview," another said. "He explained why Hong Kong cannot be let go and from a Chinese perspective, he is absolutely right."

Two excerpts from the interview