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Brooklyn Nets team owner Joe Tsai’s ties with China came under scrutiny in a new report Thursday, days before the team plays the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Tsai, who was born in Taiwan, is a naturalized Canadian citizen who holds a Hong Kong passport. He is a co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba and, in addition to the Nets, owns the WNBA’s New York Liberty and the San Diego Seals of the National Lacrosse League.
His efforts to support the social justice movement in the U.S. come into conflict with statements he made about the personal freedoms of Chinese citizens and the silence around the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of the Communist country.
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According to ESPN, the conflict reared its head most notably in 2019 when then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters as the Nets were set to take on the Los Angeles Lakers in a preseason tour of the country. Morey tweeted, “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong,” before deleting it after backlash.
Supporters of the former Rockets general manager believed Tsai was pushing the league to fire Morey and push the league to offer a resounding apology to the Chinese government, ESPN reported. The assertions were reportedly denied.
Brooklyn was also accused of refunding Morey’s purchase of a Barclays Center suite when the Rockets came to town. Morey believed that Tsai had “disinvited him” but sources told ESPN that Tsai and the Nets were “unaware” of the decision, which was allegedly related to potential protests.
Tsai had defended a national security law in Hong Kong in an interview on CNBC and defended China for cracking down on alleged “separatists.”
“What is this for? It’s against sedition. It’s against people that advocate splitting Hong Kong as a separate country. I want to make sure that we prevent foreign powers from carving up our territories. I think Hong Kong should be seen in that context,” he said.
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Additionally, Tsai was asked about China cracking down on human rights issues but asked to clarify what the host was talking about. The way he saw it, “the large number of the population – I’m talking about 80-90% of the population – are very, very happy for the fact that their lives are improving every year.”
While tensions allegedly boiled between Tsai and Morey, ESPN noted just how murky the waters the NBA is navigating are. A study says Alibaba is “effectively state-controlled.” That notion is underscored by co-founder Jack Ma’s disappearance from public view after he criticized China’s financial regulators in October 2020. It was only in October 2021 he reappeared in Hong Kong, Reuters reported.
The technologies Alibaba helped produce were used for government surveillance, according to a congressional report in 2020. The technologies have been used to “re-educate” Uyghur Muslims and force millions into camps in the western part of China – something the Chinese government has denied.
Tsai has been in full support of the NBA’s social justice movement. He and his wife Clara’s Social Justice Fund help fight racial injustice and plan for economic recovery in Brooklyn following the coronavirus pandemic. The two aim to end racism of all kinds against people of color.
However, Tsai’s views about heavily surveilled citizens of China contrast heavily.
He was asked in 2019 in a discussion at the University of California San Diego about the crackdowns on academic freedoms in China.
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“It is what it is. The fact is, China today is a single-party system, so there’s going to be restrictions on academic freedoms and freedom of expression. I mean, do people like that? I think most people don’t like it, but I think that’s how the Communist Party needs to control that in order to feel confident about pushing their policies in other areas,” he said.
“The single-party system is in place because the elite in China feel that China is still a developing country, and I talked about two broader goals: to make sure that the population is wealthier and doing better and also to restore this sense of renaissance and pride about Chinese culture. They feel that dissent has to take a backseat and whatever they’re doing is right.”
He told the Milken Institute in 2018 it was important for China to limit freedoms of its people.
“You need to understand that it is important for the Communist government that there’s absolute stability in the country. 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.”
In the fallout of the 2019 ordeal, Morey deleted the tweet and was forced to backtrack. He would eventually leave for the Philadelphia 76ers’ front office and hire Doc Rivers as their new head coach.
Morey told ESPN in December 2020 he wasn’t tweeting out of jest. He said he knew the situation in Hong Kong well because of friends he had over there.
“I’m very comfortable with what I did,” he said.
He said at the time of the backlash he was fearful for his family.
“Luckily I had [access to] different people who were assisting me with that and giving me advice on how to handle it,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ve been able to get where we have some level of safety.”
“But I was extremely concerned. You don’t want the second-most powerful government on Earth mad at you, if you can avoid it. In this case, I couldn’t,” Morey added.
Morey and Tsai didn’t comment to ESPN on Thursday’s report.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expressed support for Morey and free-agent forward Enes Freedom for speaking out on global issues.
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“We have always supported and will continue to support every member of the NBA family, including Daryl Morey and Enes Freedom, expressing their personal views on social and political issues,” Silver told ESPN in a statement.