Activists wear “Free Hong Kong” T-shirts before an NBA exhibition game between the Washington Wizards and the Guangzhou Loong-Lions on October 9 in Washington. Photo: AP
Allen Yu
Allen Yu

The NBA’s row with China should be a lesson to the US – free speech should not be used in defence of rioters

  • The US staunchly supports free speech, but even it does not allow speech that discriminates or puts others in danger
  • The NBA should look at what the rioters are doing to Hong Kong and show some respect for China’s position

Over the past week or so, the long-simmering China-US disputes seem to have spilled over from the geopolitical and economic realms into the people-to-people arena. This is not good. In this increasingly multipolar world, America needs to learn to be fellow citizens of a shared world and refrain from nosing into other people’s affairs.

Two recent incidents have triggered a public outcry in China. The first involves a tweet last week by Daryl Morey – general manager of the Houston Rockets – retweeting protesters’ slogan “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong”. The second involves Apple’s decision – since rescinded – to distribute through its app store an app called – which allows “protesters” in Hong Kong to crowdsource information relating to police locations to better plan their attacks.
The response in China – via its state media and throughout its various vibrant social media platforms – has been uniform, swift and unequivocal. NBA commissioner Adam Silver did not help when he appeared in a press conference to back Morey by declaring that “Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right [to freedom of speech]”.
The NBA needs to reflect and apologise. From a rational perspective, the Hong Kong protesters can no longer be considered mere “protesters”. They are rioters. Almost daily, we see “protesters” attacking, beating, even burning innocent bystanders. They deliberately block roads and traffic to cause maximum mayhem. They occupy airports and stop and beat travellers whom they do not believe are sympathetic. They organise rallies to deface business, government and public properties. They have taken to directly attacking police officers – who have shown utmost restraint – with petrol bombs, laser pointers, rods and knives.

There is no reason for this. In Hong Kong’s brutal colonial past, protests were indeed illegal and brutally suppressed. But in today’s Hong Kong, protests are legal and allowed.

Even in the US – which has one of the strongest protections of speech in the world – the government regulates the time, place and manner of protest. American protesters do not have a First Amendment right to block pedestrian or vehicle traffic, or to prevent entry and exit from buildings, or to harass other members of the public.

Protesters in America do not have a First Amendment right to obstruct and resist police officers; trespass; disobey police orders regarding traffic; vandalise; break curfew at parks, beaches or other public spaces; conspire to inflict harm to others; to disturb the peace; or to incite violence against on grounds of others’ race, religion, nationality, identity or other beliefs. Protesters also cannot target their protests at sensitive facilities such as abortion centres, hospitals, churches and homes of individuals, or disregard government’s regulations relating to sound amplification and other noise issues.

Today, Twitter, Facebook, Google and other American tech stalwarts regularly remove posts, accounts and apps that constitute “hate speech”, “untrustworthy” information, “disinformation” or the “promotion” or “incitement” of “violence”, etc. These companies should be able to do more to prevent their platforms from being used by violent rioters in Hong Kong to plan violent acts, in violation of local laws and in contravention of their own guidelines.

Hong Kong at the sword’s point of US foreign policy

If Morey wants to support the absolute “freedom” of rioters to express their conscience, fine. But if some mainland or Hong Kong’s counterprotesters were to show up at his games and start vandalising and attacking his fans, would he stand up also for the rights of these “counterprotesters”?

I hope more Americans do more homework before they preach, judge and cast their stones at China. China is a major power, not a target for foreign-sponsored violent overthrows. Please do unto others only as you would have them do unto you.

Crying “fire” in a crowded theatre – whether in the US or Hong Kong – is a crime – not freedom. Throwing “incendiary bombs” at crowds and police is also a crime – not freedom.

Allen Yu is an adjunct fellow at the Chunqiu Institute for Development and Strategic Studies