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NBA crisis in China is all about whether America and China can respect each other

Editor's notes: On Oct. 5, the General Manager of NBA's Houston Rockets Daryl Morey was criticized in China due to his tweet backing the violence in Hong Kong.

It has sparked outcries among different Chinese media outlets and the Chinese Basketball Association, followed by multiple Chinese brands terminating cooperation with the Rockets.

Apologies haven't been heard from Morey himself or the NBA. In response, the NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave his support for Morey's right on the execution of freedom of expression.

I just want to make a few comments on the NBA-China incident.

How we should perceive freedom of speech and its limits – an endless discussion even in today’s western world

1. Where does the freedom of speech come from?

Freedom of speech is considered a basic human right. If opinions cannot be expressed, then there’s no way for people to conduct public communication, participate in politics, and practice democracy. In this sense, the freedom of speech is a special right of the citizens against the regime. To protect and encourage citizens’ freedom of speech is indeed an aspect of restricting public power. In the meantime, the practices of the public power to confine individuals’ free speech would become very sensitive, and the imprisonment of speech is considered anti-democracy.

Therefore, freedom of speech is an issue that mainly deals with the relationship between civil society and the government, or the public power.

2. What kind of restrictions violate the freedom of speech?

There has been a classical question. Can an enterprise or organization restrict the right to speech of its employees? Will such restriction constitute a violation of the freedom of speech? Based on what have been said above, only the restriction on citizens’ speech made by the public power is considered violation of the freedom of speech. Of course, such a definition is more or less in the legal and political spheres.

However, any company, institution, for instance, a political party, or organization has the right to restrict the speech of its members. It is a voluntary practice made by individuals participating in civil associations and organizations, and has nothing to do with the public power. For instance, if an employee of a company wants to make a comment that is against the company’s regulation, they should leave the company and suit himself in another one. As long as they are employed by the company, they have to obey every rule, regulation, and code the company issues – from speech to behaviors as well as dress code.

If an employee is penalized or even fired by the organization they work for because of their speech, they can file a lawsuit against it. Such a lawsuit is a civil action that can resort to the labor law in the name of the employer’s discrimination or the violation of other laws, but it doesn’t suggest that the employer has infringed on the right to free speech from legal and political perspectives.

That explains why Google as an enterprise can fire engineers who make racist or sexist remarks, but at the same time Donald Trump has no right to require any organization to turn mute on a certain issue.

3. Why should boundaries or limitations be set for freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is not absolute, and boundaries and limitations are generally set for it. Those remarks of hatred, discrimination, eroticism, violence, violation of privacy, as well as slander are always prohibited and unaccepted.

To limit the freedom of speech is to reduce harms, as one shall never hurt others when they uphold or exercise their freedom. In a “free” society where everyone’s freedom is limitless, chaos would be caused and would further lead to the segregation of society. At the same time, the boundaries and limitations of the freedom of speech also aim at the protection of the vulnerable groups, as the latter are always in an inferior position when it comes to the right to speech. Thus, restrictions should be placed on the right to speech of the predominant groups. This is also a basic mechanism that safeguards the unity and operation of the society. The restrictions on the right to speech about gender, race, and religion in the West always follow this logic.

Political correctness/incorrectness is related to and extended from the freedom of speech.

To consider someone’s remarks politically incorrect means such remarks have violated the boundaries, restrictions and taboos of the freedom of speech. Political correctness and incorrectness sets boundaries and minefields of speech so that people would avoid crossing such boundaries and practice a form of conscious self-censorship. For example, they know they should never make sensitive remarks on races, genders, religious beliefs or the vulnerable groups to avoid hurting people or groups.

Political correctness has been widely applied in the Chinese context. As the opposite of political incorrectness, it conforms to the mainstream values, recognition, norms, standards and customs, and is accepted politically, socially and morally. It is considered active and positive.

For instance, to uphold democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and to laud God is absolutely politically correct in the US. However, in China, absolute political correctness remains to be the act of protecting the integrity of the country’s sovereignty and territory.

To be more specific, the standards of politically incorrectness and correctness vary with different groups, and that is true in any society. In the US, people support the Constitution and system, which is indisputable. However, when it comes to whether the people should stand up and stay sincere, and whether they can doubt and disrespect the national flag and emblem when singing the national anthem, there are different opinions. The Right consider such disrespect incorrect, while the Left think it is acceptable.

Such variation would be more obvious when things happen in different countries. In the US, it is politically correct for politicians to praise God and keep religious faith, while in the UK, it might not be politically incorrect for politicians to do so, but they may be considered stupid in this aspect.

That is because every group of every society has its own standards.

The things that are regarded as “politically correct” or “politically incorrect” in one society can be totally the opposite in another society, as the societies with different cultures, traditions, history, view of values, and social compositions have different social issues and problems. Therefore, some standards (rather than all standards) are socially constructed, culture-based, and target specific societies, rather than universally applicable.

Similarly, the things that are thought to be very offensive in one society can be “socially acceptable” in another society. In the Western world, especially the US, racism is a taboo subject, due to its history of complicated race relations. However, the consciousness of the taboos against racism is not all equally intense in every Western society. In some more conventional societies, people’s consciousness of taboos against racism is less strong than that in the US for sure.

In the US, socialism is within the freedom of speech. While not being “politically incorrect” and definitely not “politically correct”, socialism is regarded as a “bad” word that is beyond the acceptable range of the mainstream groups and needs to be used very prudently in the US. In Western Europe, socialism is a very common and can be a “politically correct” word. In addition, in Japan who also adopts the Western systems, the Communist Party is a real and important political party.

There are more extensive examples of the above-mentioned facts in daily life. For instance, addictive drugs are regarded as a taboo subject in Chinese society. With a notorious name, addictive drugs are not acceptable to be discussed in public in China. However, in the US, there is no special ill repute for addictive drugs. They are just regarded as drugs, dopes, or addictive medicine. While addictive drugs represent a social issue in the US, they do not cause widespread antipathy or constitute a taboo subject. The acceptance of addictive drugs in the US society is far more than that in China. This is the difference between the two societies. There are numerous such examples.

To put it simply, different countries have different understandings of the boundaries and taboo subjects of the freedom of speech, as well as what is politically correct and what is politically incorrect, due to different history, traditions, cultures, social compositions, view of values and social ideologies. Therefore, one country’s standards cannot be simply applied to another country.