The attack on Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey 's tweet ("Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong") put China's vision for a new world order in stark relief for an American audience, showing the lengths to which China will go in its campaign to squelch free speech.
Xi Jinping's administration is doing to foreign businesses what it has long done to domestic dissenters: punishing those whose words stray outside ever-narrower red lines. Airlines have had to redraw maps. T-shirt slogans that seem to suggest Taipei and Hong Kong are on a par with Beijing have been withdrawn.
A pro-democracy shoe designer saw the shoes he had designed for Nike taken off the shelf. A BNP lawyer in Hong Kong who mocked pro-Beijing protesters resigned after the company came under pressure. Cathay Pacific chairman John Slosar, who said that his company wouldn't dare to tell employees what to think, found himself out of work.
There is ritual humiliation in China's weaponising of free speech. First comes the outcry by netizens, one whose intensity might be ratcheted up or damped down by authorities. Then comes a craven apology by the company, desperate as it is to protect its fast-growing China business.
In important cases, the chief executive or chairman flies to Beijing, where authorities dress him down for his wrongdoings.
Sometimes punishments are more severe. South Korea's Lotte group's China business was destroyed after the company allowed some of its home-country property to be used as a site for an anti-missile defence system that Beijing opposed. This is a world in which ever-fewer global businesses will dare stray from China's party line.
The slightest transgression becomes a challenge to national sovereignty.
Words are twisted in the service of the party line. Morey's tweet was said to be supporting sedition. National Basketball Association (NBA) Commissioner Adam Silver's defence of free speech just made matters worse. Tencent suspended the streaming of some NBA games. The NBA's substantial revenues from China are at risk. All this over a seven-word tweet?
No other state would think of doing what China has done. This is behaviour unworthy of a proud, confident country with 2,000 years of statecraft.
It smells of brittleness, insecurity and a government's doubts about its own legitimacy. A confident country would not even notice a political tweet by a foreign sports executive.
Would the French react with such vehemence if Morey had tweeted in support of the gilets jaunes ? I don't think anyone would have noticed - or if they did, cared. Who, after all, takes a basketball executive's view on another country's politics seriously?
Companies that are doing business in Hong Kong or China might have few choices as the red lines narrow. Cathay Pacific needs the China market more than China needs the airline. It operates some of its most important routes, thanks to the grace of the Chinese regulators.
The NBA doesn't need China. It is one of the few organisations that could turn its back on the country. There is no easy substitute - I don't see Major League Baseball taking basketball's place among Chinese fans. This may prompt China to grow its own basketball league.
However this turns out, the sorry spectacle is yet another illustration of an increasingly polarised world.
Let's forget about the Chinese dream as one in which Beijing builds thicker and warmer ties with the rest of the world. Let's forget about the dream of a China that accepts the norms of open societies. This is a China determined to enforce political correctness.
The problem with authoritarian governments is that the more control they exercise, the more control they want. There is always an untidy person, an inconvenient tweet. Even Stalin and Mao could not completely control their hundreds of millions of people.
A more pluralistic society in the 30 years after economic reform began in China in 1979 is giving way to a world in which Winnie the Pooh is banished. A country with China's military and economic power is worried about Winnie the Pooh?
There is nothing in this embrace of a new authoritarianism that reflects Chinese characteristics. Taiwan and Hong Kong have all developed a remarkable degree of social and political openness that parallels their economic development.
It's tempting to think that China's rise is unstoppable and that resistance to its attempts to set the rules for what can be spoken is futile. The opposite may be true. China has badly overreached in the NBA case. It's alerted sports fans and the African-American community to China's tactics.
Just as the decision to militarise the South China Sea jolted the US security establishment into action, the short-term victory from China's decision to weaponise free speech will come at a longer-term strategic cost.
The NBA controversy put the spotlight on Hong Kong and makes it more likely that the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will pass.
If the NBA is any indication, China's attempts to build soft power and sell the world on the Chinese dream will fail. To increasing numbers of Americans, at least, a world in which speech is a weapon looks like a nightmare.
Mark L. Clifford is executive director of the Asia Business Council
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