By Jedd McFatter
Billionaire Joe Tsai’s reputation took a big hit last week after ESPN published a damning report exposing Tsai’s troubling connections to the Chinese government.
The lengthy article describes in detail how Tsai, who owns the Brooklyn Nets, became “the face of NBA’s uneasy China relationship” by personifying the compromises that are required to do business with an authoritarian government guilty of major human rights abuses. Tsai—a naturalized Canadian citizen born in Taiwan who considers himself ethnically Chinese—also co-owns Alibaba, the largest ecommerce company in China. ESPN details how Tsai has repeatedly defended the Chinese government against charges of human rights abuse in the Uyghur population of China’s Xinjiang region, while failing to publicly address or even acknowledge that his company, Alibaba, has invested substantially in two facial recognition companies used by the Chinese government in Xinjiang to “build an intrusive, omnipresent surveillance state” which can track the movement of every resident. Both of these companies—Megvii and Sensetime—were recently blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Treasury.
Pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, who won a seat in Hong Kong’s legislature in 2016, told ESPN that Tsai is like a CCP spokesperson in disguise. “It doesn’t matter if you call him an entrepreneur, a sports owner or a philanthropist, he is channeling the kind of Chinese authoritarianism in the U.S. with a more soft approach that’s quite daunting,” Law said.
ESPN claims that Tsai “believes China’s restrictions on personal freedoms have paved the way for success” for Chinese citizens, but his association with companies implicated with human rights abuses has drawn criticism from U.S. officials, activists, and academics.
According to former deputy national security advisor and China specialist, Matt Pottinger, “Joe Tsai is emblematic of U.S. Sports and business figures who are critical of American imperfections…but who make excuses for human rights atrocities committed in China, where he makes money.” So there’s a simple explanation for why Tsai can donate upwards of $50 Million to fight “systemic racism” and “inequity” in the U.S. while ignoring genocide in China: subservience to Beijing boosts the bottom line.
Moreover, Tsai’s record reveals how the NBA’s global ambitions, especially in China, come into conflict with its commitment to social justice.
ESPN’s reporting confirms the research laid out in Peter’s Schweizer’s New York Times bestseller, Red-Handed, which revealed some of the questionable ties between Tsai and Communist Party of China. In Red-Handed, Schweizer argues that Alibaba’s corporate structure itself is “organized in a way that resembles the governance of the Communist Party of China” and he further reveals that Alibaba has developed propaganda technologies for the CCP and cloud-computing services for the Chinese military.
But the effect of Tsai’s “uneasy relationship” with China goes far beyond the world of sports. As Schweizer discloses in Red-Handed, Tsai has donated tens of millions to elite American Universities through a shady network of international charities and shell companies. Some of the scholars funded through his donations have gone on to hold political positions in American government, such as Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, who was previously a paid fellow at Yale’s Tsai Center, which was set up and funded by Joe Tsai.
Given his unique entanglement with the Chinese government, Tsai’s donations to American Universities need closer scrutiny to determine whether or not he’s become a conduit for Beijing to funnel money and influence into U.S. Higher Education.