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Moral high ground? As Irving controversy percolates, some pushback (including a music critic) on Nets owner & philanthropist Tsai regarding Alibaba's role in China

Well, the Municipal Art Society must be glad they added the unassailable Jon Batiste to its lineup of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal winners who have made "an extraordinary contribution to New York City."

That's because another winner, Brooklyn Nets owner (and businessman/philanthropist) Joe Tsai, has generated controversy well beyond the issue I raised in September: his purchase of apartments in the kind of "supertall" building against which the MAS has crusaded. (Tsai is being honored along with his wife, Clara Wu Tsai.)

As the award ceremony approaches tonight, there's a partial backlash to Tsai's management of star guard Kyrie Irving, whose link-sharing implicitly endorsed (and boosted) an anti-Semitic movie, prompted critical coverage in Rolling Stone, and has led to an extraordinary series of events.

That backlash includes not only some defense of Irving, or at least resistance to the penalties--see more below, and note today's New York Daily News back cover.

It also involves greater recognition of Tsai's role defending the Chinese regime (the end justifies the means, essentially) and his company Alibaba's connection to repression of Uyghur Muslims and other victims of the Chinese surveillance state.

The sequence

Irving, after Tsai chastised him publicly on Twitter without first making contact (unclear if Tsai tried, but Irving has otherwise been hard to reach). defended his posting in a post-game news conference, then agreed, in a somewhat evasive statement, to contribute $500,000 to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), matched by the team. 

Then, again speaking to the sports press, Irving indicated he wasn't really on board, stating "I cannot be anti-Semitic if I know where I come from," generating a suspension for at least five games, followed by set of remedial requirements, as well as a suspension by shoe maker Nike of their relationship with him. (Read Joshua Adams on Irving's apparent embrace of a Black Hebrew identity.)

Thos requirements include, according to The Athletic:
  • a more complete apology (which Irving did)
  • sensitivity training created by the Nets
  • anti-Semitic/anti-hate training designed by the Nets.
  • meet with the Anti-Defamation League, and Jewish community leaders in Brooklyn
  • then meet with Tsai and franchise officials
Journalst Marc Stein has suggested that some think the list was created for Irving to reject, and thus engineer his separation from the team.

Reactions to Kyrie

Coach and commentator David Thorpe, on the TrueHoop "Bring it In" podcast, said,  "As a Jewish person, I'm far more concerned" when powerful politicos are anti-Semitic.

But "this... fool doesn't bother me one bit other than he's got followers," Thorpe said. "As a coach, I'm offended because it's supposed to be about we" and Irving, when promoting film, was not thinking of his team, or his fans (which, in NYC, inevitably includes many Jews).

"I don't think he should ever play in the NBA again, until he changes his focus, not on Jews, on how to be a teammate," said Thorpe, whose co-host, Jarod Hector, noted that this wasn't the first time Irving had alienated himself from teammates, franchise, and fans.

"I honestly do not think he means harm to anyone. I don’t think his heart is in a bad place," wrote journalist Joshua Adams, citing the "uptick of black athletes, entertainers, etc. adopting the Black Hebrew Israelite idea that black people are the real Jews." 

But Adams warned that Irving's promotion of the documentary "reflects ways in which Jewish people have become tools (in this case, casualties) in the dialogues and diatribes of black political identity formation.

Let's note the #StandWithKyrie hashtag, adopted by some who perhaps agree with Irving's defiantly pernicious takes but likely more who resent the Nets' stance and/or the image of bending him (a Black man) to their will. 

It doesn't sound like Irving's colleagues in the National Basketball Players Association think he needs to do more, and they could help him protest. From The Athletic:
So will the NBPA accept his written apology if he does not back it up verbally?

“First of all, we condemn any antisemitism or discrimination of any kind, any kind of hate speech. Kyrie went on his (Instagram) page and apologized. He had a proper apology, in my opinion,” Pelicans veteran and executive committee member Garrett Temple told The Athletic. “
Former Nets executive Irina Pavlova argued the remedial effort wouldn't work.
Tsai not under fire

It's important to note the double standard: consider how Irving, as an NBA player, is required (under pain of fines) to answer media questions while Tsai, an NBA owner (er, governor) is not and, when the subject of an ESPN investigative article, declined to answer questions.

As Zacharia Faria wrote 11/3/22 in the right-wing Washington Examiner, Kyrie Irving apologized. When will Joe Tsai?:
Outside of one ESPN profile that mentioned Tsai’s views of China and his company’s ties to concentration camps, you will find practically no mention of the Nets owner and his views of the Chinese Communist Party in mainstream sports media. Irving dominated headlines in the Washington Post and New York Times, but Tsai has only earned brief mentions for his public comments in 2019 [criticizing Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey for tweeting in support of Hong Kong].

None of this is to say that Irving did not deserve condemnation for his antisemitic posts, or even that the reaction was disproportionate. But it is undeniable that establishment media and sports media blow up instances of bigotry or human rights when it comes to the NBA up until China is mentioned. The Chinese Communist Party is the worst human rights abuser on the planet, but you will see more headlines if an owner supports the GOP than you will of Tsai’s support for the CCP.
I'll get to the evidence regarding that below, based mainly on that significant ESPN investigative report--more than a profile. 

But first see one of many meme-able tweets that used a screenshot from a New York Daily News article that distilled the ESPN article, which was headlined Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai is the face of NBA's uneasy China relationship.

Note that "helped force Uyghur Muslims" shorthands a more murky situation, as described below.

An "uncomfortable irony" at Geffen Hall

It's notable that a major music critic recently raised the issue. Is the New York Philharmonic’s Swanky New Space Falling Short?, the New Yorker's Alex Ross wrote Oct. 24, suggesting that the the acoustics at Geffen Hall were imperfect. 

Wrote Ross:
The opening festivities also included the première of Etienne Charles’s multimedia piece “San Juan Hill,” a co-production of Lincoln Center’s programming department and the Philharmonic. San Juan Hill was the Puerto Rican and Black neighborhood that Robert Moses obliterated to make room for Lincoln Center. The Philharmonic joined Charles’s Afro-Caribbean jazz combo, Creole Soul, in a haunting evocation of that lost community, with film segments and recorded interviews supplying a live-documentary texture. As I listened, though, I registered an uncomfortable irony. Emblazoned on the walls of the auditorium were the words “Wu Tsai Theater,” honoring a donation by Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai. Joe Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice-chairman of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which plays a crucial role in China’s draconian regime of surveillance. Perhaps a future event at Geffen could celebrate the Uyghur people, who are being forced into concentration camps in Xinjiang.
(Emphases added)

That's the first I've read in the arts press that didn't simply swoon over the $50 million donation.

In his blog last August, Ross wrote A note on the Wu Tsai Theater, citing "a slightly startling announcement today: the auditorium at David Geffen Hall, which reopens in the fall, will be called the Wu Tsai Theater, after the business couple Claire Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai."

He called it odd to apply an additional name to the interior of a building that has just one performance space, as well as calling a concert hall a theater.

Ross also quoted five paragraphs from that tough ESPN story, including:
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." 

How much "to combat racism and discrimination" 

This is a small point, but there's no evidence that Tsai donates "hundreds of millions of dollars to combat racism and discrimination."

Yes, the couple's overall announced charitable donations go into the hundreds of millions, but the they most significantly support science. The Tsais have pledged $50 million, over ten years, to a Social Justice Fund in Brooklyn.

Joe Tsai is also on the board of The Asian American Foundation, formed last year "to Improve AAPI Advocacy, Power, and Representation Across American Society." The board committed $125 million, while corporations matched that

With eight members on the board, and one of them likely there for reasons other than philanthropy--Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director, Anti-Defamation League--that means seven likely put up the $125 million. 

Note the crossover between the ADL, The Asian American Foundation, and the Irving controversy. Also note Liel Leibovitz's criticism of Greenblatt and the ADL in Tablet:

One of these guys [Irving] is a weirdo with dumb opinions he may or may not actually believe. The other is running a soulless racket which just made it clear that you can say whatever you want about the Jews and buy your indulgences at a discount price.

If that $125 million to The Asian American Foundation is divided evenly among seven board members, that's less than $18 million each. It's possible that Tsai made a disproportionately large commitment, but even that wouldn't bring the total to "hundreds of millions."

Alibaba and tracking Muslims

Here's one troubling, if not definitive, piece of evidence about how Alibaba contributes (among others) to what a July 2020 Congressional report (also at bottom) called "digital authoritarianism" and "an intrusive, omnipresent surveillance state."

As the Chinese government tracked and persecuted members of predominantly Muslim minority groups, the technology giant Alibaba taught its corporate customers how they could play a part.

Alibaba’s website for its cloud computing business showed how clients could use its software to detect the faces of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities within images and videos, according to pages on the site that were discovered by the surveillance industry publication IPVM and shared with The New York Times. The feature was built into Alibaba software that helps web platforms monitor digital content for material related to terrorism, pornography and other red-flag categories, the website said.
The evidence, though, was murky:
It could not be determined whether or how Alibaba’s clients had used the minority detection tool. But the potential for troubling use is high. 
Though Alibaba removed the feature after the Times's inquiry, it still left unaswered questions.

If that feature "was never used outside the testing environment," as Alibaba told the Times, that didn't explain why it was testing those tools, or "why information about the feature had been included in the official documentation of its software."

The ESPN article

As Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru wrote for ESPN:
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."
That said, it's a tough place to do business:
Over the past two years, Alibaba has come under the growing sway of China's Communist Party, part of a government effort to exert more control over the country's tech industry... 
Alibaba is "effectively state-controlled," according to a recent study on the company by Garnaut Global, an independent research firm that analyzes the Chinese Communist Party structure and China's technology footprint.
Note that that study is not publicly available. Then again, there's other evidence of how, since Xi Jinping became China's President in 2012, the state has encroached further on private businesses. From author Richard McGregor in The Guardian 7/25/19, How the state runs business in China
When US officials were pressed in early 2019 to provide evidence that Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, had facilitated spying on the US and its allies, they pointed out that Beijing had already made their case for them: first with the party’s systematic infiltration of private companies, and second with the introduction of a new national intelligence law in 2017. The law states that “any organisation and citizen” shall “support and cooperate in national intelligence work”. The director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, when asked about China’s entrepreneurs, cited these two policies in asserting that “Chinese company relationships with the Chinese government aren’t like private sector company relationships with governments in the west”.
The non-partisan Association for Asian Studies, in its Fall 2019 publication Education About ASIA, described Alibaba thusly:
While not state-owned, Alibaba still finds itself like other private Chinese tech companies deeply involved with the government as one of its national champions. Former CEO Jack Ma, like several of his CEO peers in China, is a member of the Chinese Communist Party and a backer of Xi Jinping’s most repressive policies. Ma has spoken openly about using big data compiled by companies like Alibaba to build a nationwide surveillance network to deter crime. As part of Xi’s Made in China 2025 initiative to use Chinese technology companies to advance the country in various sectors, Alibaba is working on “smart city” infrastructure....
Are Private Chinese Companies Really Private?, The Diplomat asked 9/30/20, answering by citing a new Central Committee of the Chinese Community Party document that "tells us in no uncertain terms that Chinese private companies will be increasingly called upon to conduct their operations in tight coordination with governmental policy objectives and ideologies."

This week, New York Times columnist Li Yuan wrote China’s Business Elite See the Country That Let Them Thrive Slipping Away, noting:
Like most Chinese people, [business people] bought into the party’s argument that its one-party rule provides more efficient governance.
...The party, under Mr. Xi, has taken control of nearly every aspect of society, costing Chinese people agency over their destinies. Members of the business class, especially those working at the top of the technology sector who operated with relatively few restrictions until a few years ago, have taken it especially hard.
That would presumably include leaders of Alibaba. So it's plausible that Tsai once had hopes for progress on all fronts.

Unlike some executives interviewed in the Times column, who are contemplating ways to leave, Tsai already has residences outside China, and the rest of his family has U.S. passports. 

Could he separate himself from Alibaba, as did lead founder Jack Ma? Who knows. But even if Tsai did so, as owner of the Nets, he can't alienate the Chinese market.

Alibaba funding "surveillance state"

The strongest case re direct involvement is that Alibaba has funded companies that helped China build that"intrusive, omnipresent surveillance state," and Tsai has never addressed it (nor addressed the policies in Xinjiang).

From ESPN: 
On Oct. 7, 2019, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that 28 Chinese organizations -- including Megvii and SenseTime, the Alibaba-funded artificial intelligence companies -- had been added to the "Entity List," which imposes trade restrictions on people or institutions engaged in activity "contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States."
In addition to his role as executive vice chairman, Tsai oversaw Alibaba's investment committee. From 2017 to 2019, Alibaba participated in three major investment rounds for Megvii. In 2018, led by funding from Alibaba, SenseTime raised $620 million, making it the world's most-valuable AI startup at the time. Alibaba and its affiliated companies currently control 29.4% of Megvii and 7% of SenseTime, according to recent financial documents.
And then:
Alibaba became "concerned" after Megvii and SenseTime were placed on the Entity List, a source close to Tsai told ESPN. The company made sure it did not hold board seats in the two companies, was not directly involved in operations and was reassured by company executives that they weren't targeting Uyghurs. Alibaba chose not to divest because of its responsibility to shareholders, according to the source, who described Alibaba as a "passive investor" in Megvii and SenseTime.
A "source close to Tsai" is surely a source "authorized by Tsai" or perhaps even Tsai himself.

What exactly does "chose not to divest because of its responsibility to shareholders" mean? Could the same be said about a number of unsavory investments?

So, what does it mean? From ESPN:
Matt Turpin, the former China director for the National Security Council, participated in discussions over which companies to add to the Commerce Department blacklist in 2019. Tsai, he said, 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."

But he said Alibaba's support of Megvii and SenseTime and human rights abuses were well documented and should give the NBA pause.

"Last I checked, that's a pretty abysmal thing to be associated with," Turpin said. "In today's NBA, I guess it's not a problem."
The rationale, according to ESPN, is that Tsai thinks the end justifies the means:
"You need to understand that it is important for the Communist government that there's absolute stability in the country," Tsai said. "In the American context, we talk about freedom of speech, freedom of press, but in the China context, being able to restrict some of those freedoms is an important element to keep the stability."