By Sebastian Skov Andersen and Joyce Leung
LeBron James’ descent into a villain in Hong Kong has been long underway, and the continued silence by the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) biggest superstar about China’s human rights situation has ignited a fire among the city’s basketball fans. At its peak, the disappointment of many people with their childhood hero was so intense that they orchestrated an entire protest against his name.
Like many other high-profile players in the league, James has faced scrutiny from Hong Kong’s most zealous basketball fans for most of his two-decade long career. His US$1 billion lifetime endorsement deal with Nike requires him to travel to China to market his brand and improve sales. He must maintain good relations with Beijing for Nike to stay on Chinese shelves.
Most recently, James caught heat from Hongkongers on Twitter after he issued a simple 10-character tweet that read “#freeWOJ!!”
James, one of the world’s most influential athletes, made the post in defence of Adrian Wojnarowski, a popular ESPN basketball insider known as “Woj,” who was suspended last week after he emailed “fuck you” in response to United States Senator Josh Hawley’s criticism of the NBA’s relations with China.
The tweet triggered an onslaught of infuriated responses from Hong Kong’s internet battalion who armed themselves with hashtags, memes, and impassioned slogans. Thousands tweeted “#FreeHongKong” in the comment section, alongside just as many American basketball fans who sympathize with the enraged protesters.
One discontented Hongkonger tweeted at James, calling him a hypocrite.
Another accused him of only being in politics for the money: “In your eyes, only Chinese Yuan RMB?” they wrote, along with a photo–shopped image of a 100 yuan note with Mao Zedong’s portrait manipulated into looking like James’ face.
“LeBron has been a freedom fighter for Afro-Americans. I suppose he values freedom, democracy and human rights across borders and races,” said Joshua, a disappointed long-time fan of James from Hong Kong, who asked HKFP not to publish his real name.
“It turns out LeBron values the Chinese yuan much more than these fundamental values of the USA. He has freedom of speech, and he enjoys the right to speak on any issue. But he cannot take the moral high ground and call himself a freedom fighter, and then also silence himself on China and Hong Kong,” he said.
The basketball, streetwear, and sneaker markets are booming in the world’s most populous country. This means that angering either Chinese consumers or their leaders naturally goes against any player’s financial interests. This is especially true in light of China’s history of responding very sensitively to criticism from foreign corporations, often by banning their products entirely.
“Historically, athletes and celebrities have wanted to cultivate the largest following possible, and any type of political statement would necessarily cut their market share,” Dr. Marty Cohen, professor of political science at James Madison University, told HKFP.
Perhaps the most famous example is Michael Jordan’s take from 1990 when he refused to endorse a Democratic Party senate candidate, Harvey Gantt, who ran against a known racist, Jesse Helms, because “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
But James’ most notable fall from grace came when he scolded Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, for publicly supporting the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters at the height of last year’s demonstrations. In October 2019, James told reporters at a press conference that a number of players were travelling in China at the time, and Morey’s statements could have endangered them.
“I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke. So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually,” James said.
Many protesters felt offended that James would denounce Morey as ignorant for speaking in favour of Hong Kong. From their perspective it was James, not Morey, who was uneducated.
After this, the consensus that James’ position was shaped more by his financial interests in China rather than by his concern for his fellow players’ safety started flourishing in Hong Kong. When he doubled-down with his “#freeWOJ” tweet, it only confirmed them in that assumption –and this time, he didn’t have the excuse of travelling teammates to hide behind.
Angered basketball enthusiasts responded to James’ criticism of Morey by arranging a rally at a public basketball facility, then equipping paper cut-out masks depicting a weeping James and waving notes of the Chinese currency. Some wore jerseys to represent rival teams while throwing James’ jerseys on the ground and stomping on them, with some even lighting them on fire.
“When LeBron challenged Morey for speaking up in support of Hong Kong, he took China’s side because of the NBA’s business interests there. He never acknowledged Hong Kong people’s suffering, and how the [Chinese Communist Party] and the government oppresses Hong Kong people,” said Janet, a pseudonym, now another former fan of James.
James has previously defended his position by claiming ignorance, saying that he was too uneducated on Chinese politics to give an informed opinion, but that he had always been welcomed warmly by the Chinese throughout his travels there. HKFP has contact him and the NBA for comment.
Failing to meet the demands of the Chinese government is an unprofitable business strategy, as the NBA has learnt over the last year. The league recently cut ties with a training centre in Xinjiang after it had lost “hundreds of millions of dollars” in revenue because Chinese broadcasters dropped its games amid the dispute over Morey’s statements.
The NBA has been criticised many times for not taking a stand against China. But China is one of the world’s biggest markets for basketball, including broadcasting rights. The Morey-controversy is simply the latest flashpoint.
Consequences of silence
Because of James’ far-reaching influence, protesters are upset that he refuses to acknowledge the consequences of his silence. They argue that it could have serious consequences for the victims of China’s human rights abuses.
Anthony J. Nownes, professor of political science at The University of Tennessee, says major celebrities like James hold substantial power because of their ability to bring subjects they find important to people’s attention. If James voices an opinion, you can be certain that it’ll feature in national television broadcasts later that same day.
This effect is known in academia as “spotlighting” and as a consequence self-censorship by celebrities can be noteworthy.
“We have a limited amount of attention span, and we can only pay close attention to a few issues at a time. When LeBron James says that he wants you to pay attention to an issue, more people would do so, and more people would spend more time doing so,” said Nownes.
“The fact that he has chosen not to is important and probably has impacted whether people are paying attention to the issue.”
Black Lives Matter
James, who is generally well-acknowledged for his philanthropic work, has been vocal in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement which, not unlike Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, aims to combat police brutality as well as systemic racial inequality in the U.S.
But his recent support for Black Lives Matter–and simultaneous silence on China-related issues–combined with his “#freeWOJ” tweet has reignited the pro-democracy protesters’ dissatisfaction with him, because it exposed to them a glaring hypocrisy on the social justice issues James chooses to support.
Not only is the pro-democracy movement equally as important as Black Lives Matter, they argue, the superstar’s silence on the treatment of Uighur minorities in concentration camps in Xinjiang is seen as proof that James only cares about some minorities and not others.
Janet, the protester and former fan of James, told HKFP that while she still respects his game she cannot say the same for his politics. She found it “hypocritical” that a person could stand for the emancipation of a people in one place, then bow down for the oppressor in another.
“If you speak out for justice in one place, you should stand for the same justice in other countries for other people. And all this because of his financial interests with the NBA in China. It is ridiculous and disappointing. If he wants our support, he should stand firm on beliefs, not his money,” she said.
“For LeBron, it is more complicated because he has previously spoken out about something, and in the U.S. speaking out for Black Lives Matter is probably less popular than speaking out against China, so the question of why he did it is a little bit more complicated,” said Dr. Nownes.
”My cause is not only about Hong Kong–it is the fight for civil liberty,” said Joshua. “I don’t see LeBron support[ing] this cause with his fullest energy, proven by the fact that he chooses to silence himself on China while also chanting Black Lives Matter.”
However, the evidence that celebrities actually have the power to move public opinion, or just the viewpoints of their fans, is limited.
“People are very set in their ways, in their positions, and in their party affiliations today. That is going to be very hard to dislodge, even if it’s someone they’re a fan of. If a basketball player takes a stand that doesn’t match their current political standpoint, I imagine people would stop being a fan of the player sooner than they would change their opinion,” said Dr. Cohen.
Joan Song, a spokesperson for Fight For Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong, a NGO, said that the problem goes deeper than James’ silence.
“I wouldn’t say that we are disappointed that LeBron James didn’t stand with Hong Kong. Rather, I would say that we are extremely concerned that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] as a state-conglomerate has wielded so much power that the most popular American basketball player would be afraid to offend,” she told HKFP.
“We can probably imagine the level of CCP influence on smaller business owners, large conglomerates, and even the many democratic governments,” she added.
Regardless of China’s sway, Song says there is still hope. “HongKongers will keep fighting, but we need the world to stand with us and realize that freedom is not for sale, and that China under its current government aims to become the most powerful player in the world stage, and would not hesitate at anything towards that goal.”
Correction 13:14: A previous version of this piece misattributed a quote from Joan Song to Fridays for Freedom, as opposed to Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong. We regret the error, which arose in the editing process.