WASHINGTON — Dictators. Always so humorous.
Take China’s communist officialdom. You’ve probably heard about the “South Park” episode last week that the Chinese government didn’t find amusing. And the fake apology from the comedy show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
No? Well, then, you must live in China, where free speech isn’t actually allowed and where the episode in question — “Band In China” — has been expunged from the cyber airwaves. The plot of the show is, as usual, silly with a sting (and too complicated to summarize in this limited space).
Basically, characters familiar to “South Park” fans make fun of China’s policy of censorship — well, whaddya know — and Hollywood’s kowtowing to China by tweaking films to suit Communist Party sensibilities.
As if on cue, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey drew backlash from several Chinese entities for a tweet on Oct. 4 expressing sympathy for the protesters in Hong Kong. “Fight for freedom,” Morey wrote, as any red-blooded American might. “Stand with Hong Kong.”
You’d have thought he had said Chinese basketball players can’t jump. Jeez.
But, of course, Americans support pro-democracy freedom fighters everywhere. China exports consumer goods. America exports freedom — in speech, in religion and in military support. Except when she doesn’t, as when President Donald Trump reportedly told Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping that he’d remain silent on the Hong Kong protests as long as trade talks were ongoing.
This was in June, long before Trump also suggested that China investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Funny how authoritarians seem drawn to one another. Rather than discuss the spark that ignited the protests — a proposal to extradite criminal suspects from Hong Kong to China — the president of the United States essentially said “no” to free speech and “yes” to censorship.
In other words, last week’s “South Park” episode hit all the right notes for freedom and democracy and all the wrong ones for China, which, apparently, has no sense of humor, especially regarding itself. Any criticism deemed anti-government spells doom to the truth-sayer, an operating principle that applies as well to businesses and corporations conducting business with China.
One would think that such a large, prosperous nation could withstand a tweet of no real consequence. But a dictatorship can’t countenance the slightest dissent, lest chaos — the wolf that sniffs at the doors of the self-anointed — sense a hint of weakness or fear on the other side. As the Hong Kong protests have escalated to violence and vandalism, the wolf’s tail is surely wagging, while Beijing’s patience is tested.
Meanwhile, scheduled broadcasts of the NBA’s preseason games in China have been scrapped by the state-run media, despite apologies, mea culpas and tender entreaties from various basketball officials, owners and, of course, poor Morey, who deleted his tweet. Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta (a name that cannot be improved upon) tweeted that that Morey “does NOT speak for” the team. The NBA called Morey’s comments “regrettable.”
And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver cut to the chase while speaking to Japan’s Kyodo News on Monday, saying: “There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear.” What happened to the guy who moved the All-Star Game out of North Carolina in response to that state’s law restricting public bathroom use by transgender people? And said, “In this day and age, you really do have to stand for something”?
Whatever that “something” used to be, today it is money over principle, censorship over free speech, and submission over character. Silver clarified his thoughts Tuesday, saying that the NBA supports players’ and executives’ rights to express themselves freely.
But “South Park,” the adolescent, profane, goofball cartoon show, got it right from the start. In their mock apology, Parker and Stone wrote: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”
In a normal world, all of this would have been a joke. Instead, we’re reminded of the fragility of freedom. Dissenting from authority is in our DNA, and standing with others similarly inclined is paying forward the debt we owe those who paved our way. But our very best thing is our sense of humor, companion to which is an essential tolerance for irreverence. It is the rigidly reverent, whether ideological or religious, who must mind everyone’s business and quash the dissenters.
We should remember this always as we pick our friends and enemies. If they can’t handle a cheer for freedom — or take a joke — pick up your ball and go play somewhere else. And, don’t let them watch.
Parker writes for the Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.