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basketball star Yao Ming carrying a Chinese flag at the Summer Olympics opening ceremony, 2008.
Yao Ming (left) at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Photo courtesy the U.S. Army.

If you want a handy albeit incomplete list of websites blocked in China, you can go to Wikipedia – unless you happen to be in China. Wikipedia is blocked there.

This apparently does not stop the Chinese government and its legions of internet hall monitors from taking an interest in the online crowdsourced encyclopedia. When the BBC examined China’s wikitivities earlier this month, it found an intense tug-of-war underway between writers and editors outside the country, who described sensitive topics in terms consistent with the way free societies understand them, and an unidentified but energetic cohort defending China’s viewpoint. Each side posted a torrent of rewrites seeking to obliterate the other’s work.

Angry differences of opinion happen all the time on Wikipedia, over matters big and small. But usually those fights crop up between individual editors. In this case, it seems likely that one side is acting directly or indirectly on behalf of the Chinese government. As the BBC observed: “We cannot verify who made each of these edits, why, or whether they reflect a more widespread practice. However, there are indications that they are not all necessarily organic, nor random.”

Articles about the Hong Kong protests saw as many as 65 revisions in a single day, ping-ponging between descriptions of people demonstrating in the streets as “protesters” or “rioters,” the BBC found. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and their violent suppression were described in the Mandarin version of the site as “the June 4th incident” to “quell the counter-revolutionary riots.” Most of the edits, whose source could be either within China (where it is mainly the government that has access to Wikipedia in the first place) or from expatriate Chinese nationals, are in the Chinese language editions, although some changes are in English. Many of the edits opposing China’s official worldview come from editors in Taiwan, which itself is the focus of much back-and-forth over whether it is “a state in East Asia” or a “province in the People’s Republic of China.”

Beijing has gotten accustomed to controlling not only what its own citizens see, hear and say about their country and its government, but also what the rest of the world may see, hear and say about it. Which brings us, of course, to this week’s brouhaha between China and the National Basketball Association.

China and the NBA have had a close and only occasionally bumpy relationship for more than 30 years. That relationship grew rapidly after the Houston Rockets selected future Hall of Famer Yao Ming, a Shanghai native, with the first overall pick in the 2002 draft. Even today, eight years after Ming’s retirement, the Rockets remain the second-most-popular NBA franchise among China’s basketball-crazed fan base. Or so they remained until last week.

That was when the Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted an image with the slogan “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” Suffice it to say the message was not well received in China, even though it was not directly received in China at all. The Chinese block Twitter, too. Besides, Morey had quickly deleted his tweet.

The Chinese government has a long history of punishing Western businesses that offend its sensibilities on various matters, such as the status of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau or Tibet. For the most part, they succeed in extracting groveling apologies from the offenders. Much more importantly, they succeed in imposing a vigorous and strict self-censorship on the part of other enterprises, including many in the entertainment industry.

Among the first Chinese organizations to react to Morey’s tweet was the nation’s premier domestic basketball league, the Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is none other than Yao Ming. The CBA immediately announced an end to all cooperation with the Rockets. Others organizations followed suit, and within days, all the NBA’s official Chinese partners had suspended or cut ties with the league. China’s state-run broadcaster CCTV announced it was suspending all broadcasts of NBA preseason games.

One of those games took place last night in Shanghai, an exhibition between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers. While the Thursday game went on as scheduled, promotional banners for the event were taken down on Wednesday, and media sessions before and after the game were canceled. At this writing, uncertainty remained about the status of a second game scheduled for Saturday night (Saturday morning U.S. time) in Shenzhen.

After some initial mixed messages and blowback in the United States against bending to Chinese pressure, the NBA said it regretted any offense but would not impose restrictions on the private speech of its personnel. This is not anything close to the abject apology China usually extracts from its foreign business partners.

There is a widely shared school of thought that China needs the NBA at least as much as the NBA needs China. I highly doubt that is the case, especially in the long run. Nearly one in every five humans on Earth today lives in China. Basketball has been popular there for longer than today’s young players have been alive. China’s own CBA currently limits the number of foreign-born players it allows, but it if it wants to match the NBA’s product – or at least try to approach it – it could lift or remove the cap while it builds its domestic talent pipeline.

If nothing else, China has more than amply demonstrated it can take a leading Western business, emulate the model, impose its own restrictions on what is said and what is sold, and keep its huge domestic market satisfied. Just go back to that list of banned sites. China’s people already live without Amazon, which shut its Chinese marketplace this year, although it still makes some cross-border sales. They also do without Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix and pretty much any foreign news outlet you are likely to consider. Are Chinese citizens pining for any of them? Not that we know of – or at least, not that any of them are willing to publicly say. They have domestic versions that meet their consumer demands. If push comes to shove on the basketball court, they can do the same with their favorite foreign sport, and they will find no shortage of homegrown talent to watch instead.

The NBA can get along without China, too. It just won’t be as rich and influential as it otherwise would have been, and its players will not have the same economic potential. But if the Chinese don’t want to buy the NBA’s product, the league and its personnel don’t have to buy into China’s censorship. We will see in due course if the relationship will be mended. If not, expect to see NBA.com on that Wikipedia list before too long – as long as you search from someplace outside China.

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