In America, you can buy a Volkswagen and criticize Angela Merkel. You can turn around and sell financial products back to German buyers who hate president Donald Trump. But free trade with China has certain conditions attached.
And the conditions have an insidious effect. There are layers of self-censorship and self-abasement that extend into America. The NBA doesn’t just abase itself in order to keep its access to China’s lucrative markets. The reporters who cover the NBA are afraid to criticize the league and its president. ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski, who followed the controversy over the 2017 all-star game in Charlotte, has been studiously silent on this controversy. ESPN, his Disney-owned parent company, which editorialized extensively in favor of the NBA’s anti–North Carolina protest, is running only the most pro forma news coverage of the NBA controversy.
NBA To China: ‘How Now Kowtow?’
I’m very far from alone in pointing out that the National Basketball Association’s suck-up to China is contemptible. Both conservatives and progressives have spoken out against the NBA for kowtowing to Beijing over the pro-Hong Kong democrats’ tweet sent out by the Houston Rockets’ general manager. Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” He deleted it shortly after sending it, and subsequently seems to have been compelled to disavow the tweet:
2/ I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
Why? Read all about it here. Basically, the Chinese Communist Party hit the roof, putting millions of dollars of NBA revenue at risk (US basketball is big in China). NBA executives fell all over themselves to thrown Morey and the Hong Kong protesters under the Red Army tank in order to protect their revenue.
Note well: in 2016, the NBA pulled the league All-Star game from North Carolina to protest the state’s transgender bathroom bill. They claimed it was a matter of principle. Now we see exactly what the principle$ of the NBA mean when it comes to offending the Chinese Communists.
Houston Rockets star James Harden has spoken out against US police shootings of black men, and defended Colin Kaepernick’s right to dissent, but he’s cool with China’s rolling over free speech and democracy in Hong Kong:
James Harden, a Rockets guard and one of the N.B.A.’s biggest stars, directly apologized to Chinese fans on Monday.
“We apologize. We love China, we love playing there,” he told reporters in Tokyo, where the Rockets were preparing for their preseason game.
“We go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support that they give us,” said Harden, who three years ago spoke out about the shootings of two black men by police.
The question is how an American league that prides itself on promoting progressive values squares those values with allowing an apologist for authoritarianism to own one of its teams. What’s more, why is a league run by a commissioner who rightly criticized President Trump’s Muslim travel ban for going “against the fundamental values and the fundamental ingredients of what makes for a great N.B.A.” also running a training camp for young players in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, amid camps of a far different kind?
Woke politics often seems to train our collective attention down on our navels rather than out at the world. Is the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms really as morally urgent as a country that is, as Pete Buttigieg sharply put it, “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship?” This is a worldview that encourages companies to take cost-free stands on the progressive cause of the moment and do absolutely nothing to uphold fundamental progressive values when doing so requires more sacrifice than the time it takes to write up a news release. A worldview that fails to force companies like the N.B.A., Apple, Google and Disney to account for the fact that they are serving as handmaidens to totalitarians is not one worth taking seriously.
Most of what is called political correctness in America is not actually enforced by the government directly. It is instead enforced by corporations who design their workplace-education policies and, increasingly, their hiring guidance based on the fear of litigation risk. By doing so assiduously, corporations also seek to curry favor with the political class and receive a moral indulgence for their rank profiteering. But it’s interesting to see how quickly and easily a Communist Party command structure, when joined to the profit motive, can inspire Americans such as Daryl Morey, whose employers grant them “freedom of expression,” to voluntarily go through a public ideological struggle session, as if there were two legitimate sides in the protests over civil rights in Hong Kong.
And here are Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance denouncing the Woke Capitalists of the NBA:
Well. Alan Jacobs pointed out today a brand-new essay by the great John Lanchester, writing in the London Review of Books about China’s surveillance totalitarianism. Here’s a link to the essay, but its paywalled. I have a copy, and will post a few excerpts. You can read some on Alan’s blog — and I recommend that you click to see his dire prediction about where this is going.
Meanwhile, here’s some Lanchester:
The party’s plans for it, as set out in the State Council’s ‘next generation artificial intelligence development plan’, published in 2017, are the most ambitious of any government in the world. (It’s noteworthy that this paper, which is fully as alarming as Document Number Nine, was freely published by a government press. The CCP is proud of what it has in mind.)
‘Digitalisation has brought the Chinese people the historic opportunity of the millennium,’ the plan says. What does that mean? It means that China feels that it fell behind the West by missing out on the industrial revolution, and intends not to repeat the mistake with this coming wave of technological change. When it comes to AI the party really, really isn’t messing around. ‘The widespread use of AI in education, medical care, pensions, environmental protection, urban operations, judicial services and other fields will greatly improve the level of precision in public services, comprehensively enhancing the people’s quality of life.’ Oh, and by the way: ‘AI technologies can accurately sense, forecast, and provide early warning of major situations for infrastructure facilities and social security operations; grasp group cognition and psychological changes in a timely manner … which will significantly elevate the capability and level of social governance, playing an irreplaceable role in effectively maintaining social stability.’ This is as pure a dream of a totalitarian state as there has ever been – a future in which the state knows everything and anticipates everything, acting on its citizens’ needs before the citizen is aware of having them. It is an autocratic fantasy, a posthumanist dream, hiding in the plain sight of a Chinese government white paper.
I mentioned to you readers earlier this summer that a Polish tech entrepreneur I interviewed this past summer told me that AI is developing so fast, and is becoming so good, that those administering the technology will be able to guide people into making decisions that they (the administrators) want them to make, without the people understanding that they are being manipulated.
China has been a dictatorship for seventy years. The idea that prosperity and the internet would in themselves make the country turn towards democracy has been proved wrong. Instead, China is about to become something new: an AI-powered techno-totalitarian state. The project aims to form not only a new kind of state but a new kind of human being, one who has fully internalised the demands of the state and the completeness of its surveillance and control. That internalisation is the goal: agencies of the state will never need to intervene to correct the citizen’s behaviour, because the citizen has done it for them in advance.
We have no need to reach a conclusion about the prospects for this new China – there’s plenty of time for that, and the chance of averting this future for China by wringing one’s hands about it is exactly zero. One point which stands out for me, though, draws on Bran Ferren’s immortal observation: ‘Technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ In other words, when technology is introduced, it doesn’t quite function as it’s supposed to; by the time it really does work, we stop noticing that it is technology and just accept it as part of the furniture of life. With the side of the new technology that concerns ‘security’, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the surveillance really works or not. Of course, it matters deeply for the individual citizen: facial recognition currently has an error rate as high as 15 per cent; combine that with a judicial system that has a conviction rate of 99.9 per cent and some law- abiding people are going to run into problems. However, from the state’s point of view, that matters less than the deterrent and coercive power of omnipresent surveillance combined with social credit. People will change their behaviour because they know they’re being watched. It doesn’t need to work in order to work.
Lanchester points out that all the technology that China is using to implement a truly totalitarian society already exists here. The companies here that developed it and control it are using it to make us buy stuff. What if it moves significantly from being mostly a consumer technology, and becomes a political technology? Or, to look at it a slightly different way, what if the line between consumer technology and political technology becomes blurred out of recognition by Woke Capitalism? Lanchester:
The risk for the developed world is that all the apparatus of surveillance and manipulation that the CCP is developing as a matter of deliberate policy, we develop inadvertently, and end up adopting through negligence, or nescience, or because we’re thinking about other things. In 2013, at the behest of Alan Rusbridger, I spent a week reading the Snowden papers that the Guardian had to destroy in the UK but kept a copy of in New York. They provided a striking portrait of the security services’ attitudes to the huge boon given them by new technology. After all, it wasn’t as if democracies collectively decided to give the security services an exponentially greater and ever growing level of access to their citizens’ private lives. It was just that new technologies came along and changed the way people lived, and those changes just happened to open their lives up to new levels of surveillance and scrutiny. This new bounty just fell into the lap of the secret services, and they accepted it gleefully.
That’s how it would be with facial recognition and AI and big data too. It wouldn’t be a Dr Evil move on the part of Western democracies to access all the new information; they would just take it because it was there, because it suddenly became available. And this, I think, is something we can’t allow to happen. In the developed world, the discourse around the internet is beginning to shift away from the idea of a deregulated, extra-governmental space and to acknowledge the need for legislation and accountability. China has repeatedly done the diametric opposite of us; this time we should live up to the values excoriated by Document Number Nine, and do the exact opposite of them. We should take China’s example seriously, and learn from it, and begin with a complete ban on real-time facial recognition. We should retain that ban unless and until we understand the technology and have worked out a guaranteed way of preventing its misuses. And then we need to have a big collective think about what we want from the new world of big data and AI, towards which we are currently sleepwalking.
This is what the book I’m working on now is about. I am interviewing people who lived under the 20th century form of totalitarianism, to get an idea of how one endures that without losing one’s humanity and one’s soul. You’d better believe that it’s coming here, and we had better get ready for it. Maybe we can stop the worst of it. Father Tomislav Kolakovic told the Catholics he met in Slovakia, in 1943, that the Nazis were going to be defeated, but that their country was going to fall under Communist rule. He taught them how to prepare for totalitarianism. Five years later, the priest’s prediction came true — and the 300 or so young Catholics he trained became the backbone of the underground church, which was the main expression of Slovak resistance.
Let the reader understand.