The World

Why Is the NBA in Xinjiang?

The league is running a training center in the middle of one of the world’s worst humanitarian atrocities.

Uniformed Chinese troops march in formation with their national flag.
Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force personnel marching with their national flag during the opening ceremony of the 2017 International Army Games in Guangshui in China’s central Hubei province.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

In the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, Chinese authorities are holding roughly a million Muslims in what government propaganda creepily calls “free hospital treatment for the masses with sick thinking”—in other words, concentration camps. Because of the difficulties of visiting the camps, and because Beijing downplays their existence, firsthand information is sparse. However, satellite photos, innovative research on government procurement bids, and excellent reporting by foreign journalists prove their existence. Some inmates are tortured. Others are forced to sit for hours singing songs praising the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

For the region’s Muslims, most of whom belong to a Turkic-speaking minority known as Uighurs, the violations extend beyond imprisonment. Uighurs in Xinjiang can’t wear veils or “abnormal” beards. In late 2017, Chinese authorities reportedly ordered them to relinquish prayer mats and Qurans. It’s difficult for Uighurs to leave their homes without omnipresent police scanning their faces with dystopian accuracy, ostensibly as part of the hunt for “terrorists.” Police require them to install an app—whose name translates to “web cleansing”—on their phones that alerts local authorities to “dangerous” content. They can’t even own certain types of knives without registering them because of fears they will use them for violence. On Aug. 10, a member of a United Nations human rights panel condemned Beijing for turning the region into a “sort of ‘no rights zone.’ ”

Doing business in an authoritarian country like China inevitably presents ethical and political dilemmas, as several tech giants and airlines have recently learned. But doing business right in the midst of a campaign that some human rights groups have described as genocide is another thing entirely—and most U.S. companies have unsurprisingly given Xinjiang a wide berth. Yet one of the exceptions is striking: the National Basketball Association. In Oct. 2016, the NBA set up one of its three Chinese training centers in, of all places, Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang and site of massive race riots in 2009 that left hundreds dead. The center, which houses roughly 240 student-athletes ages 14 to 18, according to its website, has kept a very low profile. That’s unsurprising—because the NBA presence in Xinjiang is shameful.

Over the past few years, Xinjiang has become ground zero for a repressive revolution into a total control state. Think less George Orwell and more Michel Foucault, the philosopher of power who described a system of total control as a “cruel, ingenious cage.” Shoppers often must allow their faces to be scanned just to enter markets around the vast region. Passing through dozens of checkpoints on an April trip to Xinjiang, the American Ph.D. student Darren Byler was struck by the casual racism. Uighurs were required to scan their IDs and faced far longer lines and police harassment. Han Chinese—who make up roughly 92 percent of China’s population, and roughly half of Xinjiang’s population of 22 million—did not. “During my entire trip, I did not see a Han individual produce his or her ID, or even pause for a moment to wonder if they should,” he wrote.

Operating in such a place seems antithetical to the public stance of a league that has recently gone out of its way to tout its progressive, social-justice bona fides. After the Trump travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority nations, prominent NBA figures took the side of the critics. League commissioner Adam Silver took the unusual step of criticizing the ban, saying “it goes against the fundamental values and the fundamental ingredients of what makes for a great NBA.” Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy compared the ban to Hitler registering the Jews.

NBA stars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have condemned police violence and racism in the United States, while players and executives have protested the Trump administration’s separation of immigrant children from their parents. According to his LinkedIn page, the NBA executive George Land oversees the Xinjiang training center. On Twitter, Land’s most recent activity is a retweet of the MSNBC host Chris Hayes condemning the U.S. separation of thousands of mothers from their children. But what about Xinjiang? Thousands of Uighur children are reportedly languishing in orphanages, awaiting their parents’ release from the concentration camps. The NBA didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Nor did Land. Nor did China’s foreign ministry. (In a response to the recent United Nations report, a senior Chinese official denied the reports of torture and persecution of Uighurs and said that the camps were for “criminals involved only in minor offenses,” to teach them vocational skills.)

It’s not hard to figure out the motives of the NBA. China, with its market of 1.4 billion potential fans, offers great hope for basketball’s future, and Beijing presumably approves of the league’s willingness to work in Xinjiang—both because it helps bring development to a relatively poor region and because it helps legitimize the repression against Uighurs. The league and its stars are phenomenally popular throughout the country, including Xinjiang. Zhou Qi, the only Chinese player in the NBA last season, formerly played for the region’s team, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers. A number of prominent NBA players including Patty Mills, Kenyon Martin, and Jordan Crawford have also spent time on that team.

But the NBA should no longer engage with Xinjiang. Yes, it will offend some Chinese fans, and Chinese sports regulators might make it more difficult to bring NBA games to a Chinese audience. But the alternative is to continue to help China whitewash a network of concentration camps.

Retired Lakers star Kobe Bryant, still one of the most popular players in China, said on a September 2017 visit to China that watching NBA games as a child “inspired me to dream and helped me become creative. I’m very excited that the kids here also have that same opportunity.”

Good for the NBA for encouraging Chinese kids to dream. Now it’s time to stop turning a blind eye to Muslim kids’ nightmares.