America is a capitalist economy, and NBA owners are running private, for-profit businesses. Standing up for democracy is nice when you can do it, but at the end of the day, the Rockets and the NBA will hardly be eager to offend multiple sponsors and business partners — who often live and die by the good graces of the Chinese state — not to mention millions of fans. Given that opening up trade and investment with China has also been a long-held bipartisan goal of U.S. politics, this sort of uncomfortable entanglement was inevitable.
The NBA is also a relatively mundane example of the problem. More disturbing is the fact that massive tech companies like Facebook and Google have worked for years to develop versions of their platforms that will accommodate the Chinese government’s demands for censorship and information control. These efforts have riven the companies internally, and both appear to have abandoned their projects, at least for now. But the fact that two of the most powerful global tech behemoths American capitalism ever produced were falling over themselves to conform to the standards of Chinese autocracy is a window into the amoral decision-making that occurs when the drive to make a buck intersects with anti-democracy regimes abroad.
If they were to open business in China, the revenue and profit potential for Google and Facebook would be huge. Meanwhile, versions of their platforms that cooperated with censorship would be powerful tools in the Chinese state’s arsenal.