During the process of international communication, citizens of a country tend to identify their own unique characteristics by comparing and contrasting themselves with citizens of other countries, so as to form a so-called “we-group” with clear self-consciousness and self-demarcation.
Such a spiritual nexus will help them form a shared community and sense of belonging. However, such a shared recognition will also delineate clear borders between different social groups, showing a totally different “they-group.”
In terms of linguistics, there is only a subjective difference between “we” and “they.” Without the buffer of inter-subjectivity, it is very easy for “we-groups” and “they-groups” to overemphasize their differences and fall into ideological confrontation.
According to U.S. sociologist William Sumner (1840-1910), cross-cultural communications between countries with their we-groups at the center are prone to cultural confrontations. And when such confrontations come, it is also natural for a country to honor itself to get the upper hand.
With the hotly debated NBA case as an example, during the Houston Rockets’ preseason trip to Japan on Oct. 4, Daryl Morey, general manager of the U.S. basketball team, tweeted an image that read “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The tweet infuriated all Chinese fans by supporting the violent protests in Hong Kong, which have caused vandalism and serious damage to the Chinese SAR. The tweet has also triggered many Chinese organizations such as China Central Television and digital company Tencent to suspend broadcasting and live-streaming of the NBA preseason. The Chinese Basketball Association has also lodged strong protest and cut ties with the franchise.
Historically, ancient Chinese civilization has suffered many invasions and conquests from outside its borders. Yet it is the only one that has survived all catastrophes. China thus cherishes very much its hard-earned peace, stability, development and especially territorial integrity. The more pressure is put on Chinese people, the more they will unite together to form a strong “we-group.” Just as Joseph Tsai, co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and owner of the NBA team Brooklyn Nets, said in an open letter, “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland.”
Morey quickly deleted his post and later explained that he did not intend to offend Chinese people. “My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA,” he said. Rockets owner Tilman Fertita also rebuked his employee’s short-lived tweet. The NBA commissioner Adam Silver then said in a statement on Oct. 6 that the offending tweet was “regrettable” and the league had great respect for the history and culture of China. In spite of the difference between the Chinese and English versions in the translation of the word “regrettable,” it was very clear that they want to quench the fire since all the concerned parties tried to distance themselves from the trouble-making tweet.
Nevertheless, there is also a strong so-called “they-group” in the United States, especially from within political circles. For example, U.S. senator J. Hawley sent an open letter to the NBA, asking Silver to apologize to the American people for his equivocal stance on the issue. U.S. Presidential candidate Beto O’Rouke also criticized Silver for putting money first.
Presumably under great pressure from U.S. politicians, Silver changed his tone on Oct. 8 by brazenly endorsing Morey’s secessionist tweet. “We are not apologizing for Morey’s exercising his freedom of expression. The NBA will not put itself in a position in regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say,” Silver said in a statement on the same day. But just to the contrary, the NBA has already punished many players, employees and team owners for their wrong and offensive words. For example, former boss of the Los Angeles Clippers Donald Sterling was fined US$ 2.5 million and forced to sell the team to Steve Ballmer, co-founder of Microsoft, in 2014 over racially discriminatory words.
Silver’s latest statement has revealed double standards. It has also shown that the league’s former honey-mouthed statement about the issue was nothing but an attempt to prevent the loss of profit made in China.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)