Nancy Pelosi, stock-trader extraordinaire, doubles as an adviser to America’s Olympic athletes. And her wise, nuanced advice to them is simple: “Shut up.” It would be a very bad idea, she says, to voice any political criticism at the games of the Chinese Communist Party or its glorious rule.
You may have missed her similar advice to LeBron James, as he kissed the backside of Beijing’s dictators. You may have missed her critique of the NBA, as it protected its highly-profitable franchise in China. They were as compliant as any US multinational operating in Germany in the 1930s, eager to retain their profitable operations. You may have missed Pelosi’s full-throated defense of the NBA’s Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, who tweeted his support of the Hong Kong protesters in 2019? (He quickly backtracked under league pressure.)
Nope. You didn’t miss it. Nancy’s lips were sealed. Of course, LeBron James, Nike and the NBA can say what they please. This is America. We have the free-speech rights, except at universities. Individuals, corporations and non-profits can say what they want, however craven. Still, if politicians like Pelosi wish to add their two yuan, it would be nice if they did it on the side of freedom.
One part of Pelosi’s advice made sense. Anyone who speaks out while in China does face some risk of retaliation by the dictatorship. True enough. But Beijing faces even bigger risks if it visibly punishes any foreign athlete while the games are in progress. That’s why it will be extremely reluctant to do it.
Punishing a foreign athlete for making a political comment would create a huge international row, draw global attention to the very comment Beijing wants to suppress and make Beijing’s iron fist painfully visible as it tries to put a smiley face on its totalitarian control. Why risk all that?
Moreover, any attack on Olympic athletes would put enormous pressure on the International Olympic Committee, which runs the games, to say something. Would they defend the athlete? The repressive regime? Or try to sidestep the issue? None of these alternatives are very attractive. The same is true for NBC, which has a huge investment in broadcast rights and, according to rumor, has a news division.
So, ask yourself: “If a foreign athlete spoke out at the Olympics, would Beijing actually risk expelling or punishing them while the games are on? Wouldn’t such a repressive act jeopardize the publicity bonanza the Communist Party of China has spent years preparing for?” Of course, it would.
That’s why Beijing will act secretly, as it did last month when it banished an online app for gay hookups. It will be extremely reluctant to take high-profile, public acts that could damage its reputation while the world is watching the games.
What could change that calculus for Xi and the Chinese Communist Party? Only 1) a cascade of blunt political criticism from athlete after athlete that 2) jumped out of the Olympic bubble and 3) gained traction within China itself, 4) generating dangerous instability. Beijing would only act if the political comments reached level 3. That’s extremely unlikely for two reasons. The first is that most athletes will take Pelosi’s advice. Some won’t say anything because they are apolitical. Others are fearful of punishment from Beijing. And still others hope to win endorsement deals within China. Second, the CCP will completely control everything the Chinese see and hear from the games. The outside world may hear protests, but there is zero chance the CCP will broadcast anything that reflects badly on the regime. As the old cowboy song puts it, “Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word.”
Those discouraging words may not be heard in China, but let me say one here in the West. It’s a sad spectacle to see American politicians like Nancy Pelosi reinforcing the CCP’s message that athletes should say nothing about the Party’s political control and repression. Her warning may have been prudent, designed to shield the athletes from harm. But by legitimating Beijing’s threats to free speech during an international event, she inflicted that harm herself.
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