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NBA's Hong Kong flare-up overlooks deep U.S. investment in China

It's not just the NBA. There are hundreds of companies with ties and deep roots in China – everything from Amazon to Westinghouse.
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WASHINGTON - The ties between the National Basketball Association and China have become a hot topic in the last few weeks as political partisans, on the left and right, question whether the league is chasing money in the country at the expense of caring about human rights.

As China’s economic power and influence grow, this is an important conversation to have, but even a cursory look at the numbers shows why it should be about a lot more than just the NBA.

The NBA story blew up a few weeks ago when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image that supported the protests against the Chinese government in Hong Kong. Morey quickly deleted his tweet and later apologized for sending it, saying, I another tweet, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China.”

Morey’s deleted tweet and apology stirred anger at the league for being placing dollars over human beings in China. And this past week the anger grew even sharper when NBA superstar LeBron James said Morey was “misinformed” and “not educated” on China.

A quick look at the numbers explains why the league cares so much about China.

Last season, roughly 800 million people in China tuned into an NBA game, according to the league. That’s more than twice the population of the United States.

The league is estimated to be worth about $5 billion in China, according to the Sports Business Journal, and the NBA just signed a new partnership agreement with an Internet company in the country worth $1.5 billion. Beijing is home to the largest league store outside of North America, a 15,000 square-foot retail space.

In essence, the league has placed a heavy bet for its future on the big and growing Chinese economy.

But as you might guess, the NBA is not alone on that score. There are hundreds of companies with ties and deep roots in China – everything from Amazon to Westinghouse – that have largely been ignored in the last few weeks. And everything from the car you drive to the shoes on your feet to the food on your favorite fast-food counter may be included.

Start with General Motors, the big Detroit automaker currently involved in contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers.

The contract story is a big one here, but in reality, GM has fewer American UAW employees than it does Chinese workers – 49,000 here versus about 58,000 in China, according to the company. That’s about one-third of the company’s total 180,000 employees worldwide.

You can see even bigger ties with Nike, the Oregon-based shoe and athletic wear company, that advertises that individuals should “dream crazy.”

Nike’s manufacturing arm works with 110 factories and more than 145,000 workers in China, according to the company’s website. That dwarfs the company’s 42 factories and 5,400 manufacturing workers in the United States.

And what about something deeply American, fast food? Kentucky Fried Chicken may have its roots in the Bluegrass State, but it has its eyes – and larger number of its locations in China.

In late June there more than 6,000 KFCs in China, according to Yum China, the fast-food chain’s parent company. There are only about 4,000 KFC locations in the United States, the restaurant’s site says.

And those are just a few examples. There are countless others, likely including the company that made the device upon which you are reading these words.

The point in all these numbers is not that the NBA’s actions on China and human rights are above criticism, it is rather that the NBA is just one of many businesses active in the country.

While Americans like to think of the NBA and other sports leagues as bastions of athletic competition, full of competitors who are heroes and/or role models, they are ultimately commercial enterprises pursuing dollars – not different from other businesses that sell cars, or shoes, or food.

The same is increasingly true of the athletes who play in those leagues. They are brands and commodities trading on their skills to make money on the court or field – and off.

Why are they all there? Because you have 1.4 billion people in a country with a growing middle class. International corporations and brands want a stake in a market that offers them a growing market and a huge inexpensive labor pool.

That’s not meant as a defense of actions or a value judgment, it’s a reality.

There’s an important economic and political discussion to be had about doing business in China and balancing corporate profits and human rights, but it’s hard to see why it should be different for the NBA than it is for any of the other businesses in the country.