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ESPN: Tsai "the face of NBA's uneasy China relationship"; Nets' denial of conversations re Rockets' Morey soon refuted

Yesterday, Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai is the face of NBA's uneasy China relationship, ESPN investigative reporters (and brothers) Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru went beyond the previous headlines to produce some damning details about Tsai's relationship with, and defense of the Chinese regime, so crucial to league profits.

(Here's the accompanying video.)

While the Taiwanese-Canadian Tsai, as co-founder of China's ubiquitous Alibaba, has the NBA's deepest ties to China, ESPN notes that several other owners are entwined with China, which means "the NBA, owners and players avoid positions on issues they otherwise embrace in the United States."

That sets up a huge contrast--hypocrisy, some might call it--between Tsai's posture re China and the significant charitable and social justice efforts by Tsai (and wife Clara Wu Tsai) domestically. Of course the latter also bolster his business and his reputation.

Note that Tsai was not, despite spin from NetsDaily, generously offering the Barclays Center plaza to protestors in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.
Matt Turpin, the former China director for the National Security Council, told ESPN that Tsai is "under significant pressure to be seen as doing what Beijing wants him to do. I don't necessarily fault him. He's in this impossible position."

The overview

From the authors' lead:
JOE TSAI, THE billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets, made his fortune in China. His company, Alibaba, began in a Hangzhou apartment and has since been described as "Amazon on steroids." When Tsai bought into the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver predicted he'd be "invaluable" to the league's expansion in the world's largest market.

Two and a half years later, Tsai personifies the compromises embedded in the NBA-China relationship, which brings in billions of dollars but requires the league to do business with an authoritarian government and look past the kind of social justice issues it is fighting at home.

In the United States, Tsai donates hundreds of millions of dollars to combat racism and discrimination. In China, Alibaba, under Tsai's leadership, partners with companies blacklisted by the U.S. government for supporting a "campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-tech surveillance" through state-of-the-art racial profiling.

Tsai has publicly defended some of China's most controversial policies. He described the government's brutal crackdown on dissent as necessary to promote economic growth; defended a law used to imprison scores of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong as necessary to squelch separatism; and, when questioned about human rights, asserted that most of China's 1.4 billion citizens are "happy about where they are."
About the Morey incident

The authors add new details on the 2019 ""Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." (re)tweet from Daryl Morey, then-Houston Rockets general manager, that infuriated China and caused significant loss of NBA business. Notably, Tsai's open letter in response defended China to the hilt.

ESPN breaks some news:
Morey heard directly from at least one NBA owner that Tsai was pushing to fire him to appease the Chinese. Turpin volunteered to help Morey and quickly became convinced that the Rockets' general manager was fighting not only the Chinese government but also Tsai.

...The Nets strongly denied that Tsai intervened.

"Joe Tsai did not speak to any owners about Mr. Morey after the tweet and it's absolutely false that he advocated for anything to happen to Morey," Mandy Gutmann, a Nets spokesperson, wrote in an email. 
Well, Matt Sullivan, author of Can't Knock the Hustle, a book about the Nets' 2019-20 season, responded on Twitter that, despite Gutmann's denial, Tsai did speak to fellow NBA owners regarding Morey's tweet. (That doesn't resolve whether Tsai called for Morey's firing.)
Alibaba and China

Alibaba, which started as an e-commerce company but has grown far beyond that, is "effectively state-controlled," ESPN reported, according to a study by the research firm Garnaut Global.

Moreover, a 2020 congressional report described Alibaba as funding companies that helped China build "an intrusive, omnipresent surveillance," used in Xinjiang, to suppress Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities,

Two of those companies. Megvii and SenseTime, were added to the "'Entity List,' which imposes trade restrictions on people or institutions engaged in activity" contrary to U.S. national security or foreign policy interests. 

Alibaba was a passive investor and not directly involved in operations, according to "a source close to Tsai," ESPN reported. (Note: Tsai officially didn't comment for the story, but subjects often try to shape coverage without going on the record, so "a source close to Tsai" might just be him.)

Tsai's justifications

From the article:
Tsai believes much of the criticism he receives is politically motivated by people who purposely distort his views, according to sources close to him. He supports personal freedoms but believes they can get in the way of stability that fosters economic growth and improves people's lives. He likes to point out that China is still underdeveloped, with a per capita income ($10,435, according to the World Bank) far behind that of the United States ($63,593), and that living outside of poverty is itself a human right.

"It's a cost-benefit [analysis]," the source said of Tsai's views. "If you're running a country of 1.4 billion people, you have to make a tradeoff between everything that's just free and running amok versus bettering people's lives over time."
The article goes more deeply into his past statements about the importance of "stability" and his argument that most people are happy their lives are improving.

The reaction A commenter on NetsDaily:
Can we just say it like it is? Any long time Nets fan who has dealt with this franchise’s history is elated at the developments of the last few years. That it has come with ownership by a Russian oligarch, and then a self identifying Chinese businessman is bittersweet at best for any of us who realize life is more than just sports. Not because of any xenophobia or racism, but because both of those countries are more repressive societies.