Ruihan Huang | November 20, 2019
Responding To: The Threat of U.S.-China Economic Decoupling
Game of Confronting and Compromising: A Song of Eagle and Dragon
On October 24, 2019, Vice President Pence delivered a speech on U.S.-China relations at the Wilson Center, portraying China as a strategic and economic rival, and again criticizing China on issues related to trade, technology, Hong Kong, Taiwan, religion, etc. Contrary to his earlier speech delivered at the Hudson Institute, the new one does not solely depict a negative view on China: he affirmed that the answer to decoupling is “a resounding no”, and asserted that the United States now treats China’s leaders “with respect as any other great leaders”.
With the new trade agreement (highly likely and, hopefully) on the way, it is interesting to see the various responses from different channels: most of them took a more harmonious approach to cool the tension. While the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected Pence’s speech as “Sheer arrogance”, some news comments in China welcomed Pence’s easing attitude. U.S. Embassy & Consulates in China’s Official WeChat Account posted the speech highlighting Pence’s friendliest quote “we want better for China.” Major United States news agencies, including FT, CNN, CNBC, and VOA, avoided covering the more controversial topics in Pence’s speech, instead, they chose to take aim on the NBA and Nike.
The NBA issue is a microcosm of U.S.-China economic relations: facing the direct collision of values, the two tangled titans would not bend their knees to give up their core values in the slightest, but are trying hard to make a compromise for mutual benefit.
It all starts with a seemingly ordinary tweet. When Daryl Morey posted “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” on twitter, he was probably not aware of the negative consequences. To Morey, these words may just have had the literal meaning of freedom, while to the over 1 billion Chinese, these words represented the slogan of Hong Kong protesters: some who are violent supporters of separatism and are penetrated by foreign influence. Chinese nationals, who have placed national sovereignty as a priority given China's modern history of humiliation, regarded Morey’s words as totally unacceptable and thus demanded an apology from Morey and the NBA. Three days after the incident, Adam Silver, the NBA Commissioner, characterized Morey’s tweet as “freedom of expression.”
Once Morey’s deed was defined as “freedom of speech,” and since Chinese people had already defined the slogan as a defiance to national sovereignty, a deadlock was created. This trivial incident led to the confrontation between two core values in two countries, and neither side would give up: the NBA team could never step aside and apologize, and if they did so, it would become a betrayal for the core American value embedded in the Constitution. The Chinese people, on the other hand, citing the incident of the former Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s private racist being made public, blamed the United States for using a double standard. From the view of many Chinese, it is ironic that the NBA alliance failed to support “freedom of expression” on that occasion, banning Sterling from the league for life and fining a maximum of $2.5 million. Whether the arguments on both sides are right or wrong may still be debatable, this represents a huge conception gap. Just like most Chinese wouldn’t understand how private racist comments could become such a sensitive topic, most Americans would not link the protestors’ slogan with the sensitive Chinese national sovereignty issue. The sad truth is, people in both countries will continue to stand firm with their countries’ ideology, refusing to listen or bend to the opposition.
To my surprise, after only a few days of boycotting, a compromise was reached between the NBA and China. The suspended NBA broadcast was back on schedule in just 3 days, and all offline NBA events were held with no interference. The Rockets became the major sacrifice: nearly all brands operating in China, including Nike, suspended the business collaboration with the Rockets. The ebbs and flows presented in the seemingly small basketball playground become a vivid representation of the competition between the United States and China in the larger contested fields.
With so much economic engagement between the United States and China, it is hard to foresee economic decoupling in the near future. Acknowledging and respecting each other’s deeply embedded value and regime, the peaceful economic co-existence can happen, on the condition that both sides resist the temptation to alter each other’s firm ideology differences. The price of economic decoupling is too high to pay for not just the US and China, but the world as a whole. With the rapid globalization and populism emerging around the world, it is crucial for these two superpowers to take responsibility to avoid antagonizing each other and build a paradigm for peaceful economic co-existence and growth.
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