This hullabaloo wouldn’t happen in China for a multitude of reasons. For one, Chinese journalists have as their Editor-in-Chief the Chinese government.
Nothing too unusual about this morning’s NBA playoffs broadcast. The Suns-Spurs game was aired on CSPN – China’s all-sports equivalent to ESPN – and presided over by a pair of commentators/analysts who were waxing on the game from thousands of miles and 10 times zones away.
As tempting as it is to rant about the Suns, my favorite NBA team, I’ll stick to the point and not get sidetracked on how awesome Steve Nash is, or how tortured the Suns’ recent history has been – especially against the Spurs. After all, the best Suns team in recent memory, the 2007 squad, was ousted by the Spurs in the playoffs in no small part because later-jailed NBA official Tim Donaghy famously and brutally fixed Game 3. I won’t talk about any of that stuff. Promise.
Instead, what struck me about this morning’s game was the idea of Phoenix’s “Los Suns” jerseys happening in China. The idea of a blatant political statement being made…on (inter)national television…highlighting and criticizing a governmental decision…and it being allowed to happen!
And not only allowed to happen, but even admiringly referenced by the president. Obama, after all, addressed a crowd Wednesday by saying, “I know that a lot of you would rather be watching tonight’s game – the Spurs versus Los Suns from Phoenix.”
The Chinese parallel would be something like Xinjiang’s CBA team wanting to wear alternate jerseys in a show of support for the region’s reportedly-repressed Uighur population; the CBA allowing (and supporting) it; President Hu Jintao taking a moment to make a quip about to the press; the story getting huge media play.
This wouldn’t – couldn’t – happen in China.
A quick background on the Los Suns thing. Arizona recently passed legislation mandating that immigrants carry documentation at all times proving that they are in the country legally. The legislation also permits law enforcement officials – “when practicable” – to ask for said documentation at any time, from anyone.
The aim of the law, according to Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, is to help identify and prosecute illegal immigrants. Brewer added that it was “another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix.” It is the most stringent such law in the United States.
Not everyone is for it, however. Obama, for instance, said that the legislation threatens “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.” A statement from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said that the law could spur “a spiral of pervasive fear, community distrust, increased crime and costly litigation, with nationwide repercussions.” And Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony went so far as to say the demand for immigration documents was akin to “Nazism.”
And it’s not just politicians and Mexican groups and religious figures who are against the law. The Suns are against it too, and that’s why they were wearing jerseys that said “Los Suns” – to protest the law and show solidarity with Arizona’s large Mexican population.
The Suns have been unabashed about their displeasure with the law. The team’s owner, Robert Sarver, said the other day, “The frustration with the federal government’s failure to deal with the issue of illegal immigration resulted in passage of a flawed state law. However intended, the result of passing the law is that our basic principles of equal rights and protection under the law are being called into ….”
And after Tuesday’s practice, Steve Nash said, “I think the law is very misguided. I think it’s, unfortunately, to the detriment of our society and our civil liberties. I think it's very important for us to stand up for things we believe in. As a team and as an organization, we have a lot of love and support for all of our fans. The league is very multicultural. We have players from all over the world, and our Latino community here is very strong and important to us.”
Such public displays of political discontent – and media coverage of that discontent – would simply not happen in China. Period.
There are no direct analogies to this Phoenix Suns scenario. The Chinese government has a tight handle on these things – protests, and the manner in which protests are portrayed by the media. Media in China, after all, are controlled (or at least heavily censored) by the government. So even if there were an unabashed attempt to protest a governmental decision, say, like the Phoenix Suns did, it would only become news if the government allowed it to become news. And that’s only if it were allowed to happen – which it probably wouldn’t be.
For instance, foreign protesters who unfurled a pro-Tibet flag in 2008 were arrested, jailed and then expelled from the country. Later, China closed Mount Everest as a preventative measure to thwart any more protests.
In his book Oracle Bones, author Peter Hessler writes about a religious anniversary – a day rife with protest potential – that he witnessed in Tiananmen Square in 2000:
…a small man directly in front of us drops into lotus position. Shouts, commands, people running: a half-dozen plainclothes cops. By the time they force the man to his feet, a van is already speeding toward us from a far corner of the Square…they carry him into the van. Sheets have been tied over the windows so nobody can see inside….
I wander off the Square for a few minutes, and when I return, a middle-aged woman tries to unfurl a banner in front of the flagpole. A plainclothes man tackles her hard….
So, it’s hard to protest in the first place. And if people do manage to sneak in a protest, then the media coverage is tightly governed. For example, when all the Tibet stuff was going on in 2008, foreign journalists were simply banned from entering the region. The only people chronicling the stories, therefore, were Chinese journalists, and Chinese journalists have as their Editor-in-Chief the Chinese government. Once foreign journalists were allowed to enter Tibet, the protests had been subdued and journalists were escorted around by Chinese authorities. In addition, in 2009, which marked the 50th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, reporters were expelled not only from Tibet, but from neighboring regions as well.
And this article discusses a 2009 student protest during which “Hundreds of students from the city of Nanjing in Jiangsu Province clashed with local government security.” The article adds, “The incident was not reported in China’s national media.”
Now, I understand that a basketball team wearing contentious jerseys is different than Tibetan freedom and violent, hundreds-strong protests. But the crux of my point is that the Chinese government monitors both its citizens and the news in a way that the U.S. government doesn’t. China prevents things like Los Suns from happening, and controls vehemently how things like Los Suns can be covered if they do happen (which, again, is not likely).
Yet the media in America doesn’t shy away from controversy, nor did it shy away from the Suns’ dissenting message. After Wednesday’s game, ESPN.com’s front page simply said, “Los Winners.” Under that were links not only to the game recap, but also to an article discussing the political import of the jerseys – entitled “Suns’ Statement” – as well as a link to a copy of the governor’s post-game statement.
The governor said, among other things, “By now, sports fans everywhere have heard something about the passage of Senate Bill 1070, a measure I signed into law.” And sports fans everywhere have heard about it because of the hubbub created by Los Suns.
There’s more. The Associated Press recap of the game began, “The Phoenix Suns took a stand, and a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.” The article – which, mind you, was a game story – went on to say:
The [immigration] bill has drawn criticism from civil rights groups and others, including President Barack Obama, who called it “misguided.”…
“The team stood up for that part of our community because I think that's the side of this bill that could open the door to racial profiling and racism,” Nash said. “and I’m talking about American citizens who are Latino. Their quality of life and freedoms could change because of this bill.”
CNN.com’s “U.S.” section on its front page had a link reading, “NBA team joins immigration fight.” The New York Times’ Web site declared, “‘Los Suns’ Join Protest, Then Stop the Spurs.” Even FoxNews.com covered the story. The notoriously right-wing outlet titled its article, “Little Reaction to Jersey Protest.” (That that headline ran on the site’s front page, however, suggests that it may be a bigger deal than they’re letting on.)
This hullabaloo wouldn’t happen in China for a multitude of reasons. First off, the team almost certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to wear the jerseys. Moreover, the president definitely wouldn’t have given legs to the story by talking about the jerseys in front of a gaggle of reporters. And, maybe most importantly, the media wouldn’t be allowed to wax on and on – and print dissenting voices – like the U. S. press has done.
This post is not meant to be anti-China; I am not anti-China. Nor is this meant to be a treatise on how wonderful the United States government and media are; I have serious misgivings about each of those institutions. Nor is this meant to read like a sermon on how American basketball has yet again entered into the political sphere. For in reality, it’s not at all commonplace in the States to have basketball teams – or, for that matter, any team at any level – taking political stands. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that the Suns’ foray into politics garnered so much attention.
I’m do not want to sound imperial here, or come off as though I think America and its sports teams are untainted beacons of pure democracy and pure freedom. Heck, many believe the law that the Suns were protesting is itself an indicator of the contentious freedom that some Americans – especially ones with brown skin – face every day.
What I am saying: I’d bet the house that this not only wouldn’t, but couldn’t happen in China. That, and Viva Los Suns!!!