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More than a dozen National Basketball Association stars may soon be facing off against a formidable new opponent: Congress. Some Republicans are demanding that NBA players sever endorsement contracts with Chinese sportswear firms Anta and Li-Ning whose cotton supply chains are implicated in forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province. The Trump administration banned imports of Xinjiang cotton and products containing it in January.

“Americans can’t and shouldn’t conduct business with companies and players that profit through human slavery,” Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.) told POLITICO. “And that includes NBA players — they can’t sign endorsement deals and benefit off slave labor.”

Scott isn’t alone in his scrutiny of NBA players with links to Chinese sportswear firms whose supply chains are tainted by forced labor allegations. The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China is also probing NBA players’ commercial relationships with Anta, Li-Ning and a third Chinese sport wear company, Peak, due to their reliance on Xinjiang cotton for their products. And the Senate’s July 15 passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act will likely only intensify sensitivity in Congress to firms with supply chains linked to forced labor in Xinjiang.

All that is bad news for NBA stars, including Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler, Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum and Klay Thompson, shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors, who have lucrative contracts with Li-Ning or Anta. Retired Miami Heat star and part-owner of the Utah Jazz, Dwyane Wade, inked a lifetime endorsement deal with Li-Ning in 2018. Neither Wade nor 13 current NBA players with Li-Ning or Anta endorsements responded to POLITICO requests for comment.

“If they didn’t know [their corporate sponsor] sourced slave labor cotton from Xinjiang, that’s one thing,” Perry said. “But if they do know … they are complicit with slavery.”

N. Jeremi Duru, sports law professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, echoes Perry’s sentiment. “Athletes can do well [financially] and do good,” Duru told POLITICO. “Those who do business with entities like [Li-Ning and Anta] will find themselves on the wrong side of history.” Anta and Li-Ning have benefited from a boom in domestic share price and sales increases over the past year after Chinese consumers boycotted rival brands, including Nike and Adidas, for vowing to stop using Xinjiang-sourced cotton for their products.

Despite the ban and Li-Ning’s unavailability at any major brick and mortar or online U.S. sport and sportswear retail chains, U.S. consumers can still order badminton and table tennis cotton socks and T-shirts on the firm’s online sales portal. That site, linked to a Canada-based firm called LN Distribution Inc., also lists a handful of low-volume direct dealers of Li-Ning branded badminton, table tennis and pickleball gear. Leonard Carter, LN Distribution’s general manager for sports equipment distribution, told POLITICO that 95 percent of the firm’s sales are for “hard goods” including rackets and that more than 95 percent of its clothing line is synthetic, not cotton. “I’d imagine if we tried to send a cotton T-shirt to the U.S., it would not get through,” Carter said.

Perry’s allegations against the firms are boosted by their boasting publicly that sourcing cotton in Xinjiang is a point of corporate patriotism. The bipartisan congressional commission wants those NBA players with Li-Ning or Anta endorsements to reconsider those deals. Commission co-chairs Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) sent a letter request to the National Basketball Players Association, the players’ union, asking it “to push these companies to end their use of Xinjiang cotton … [or] encourage players to end their endorsement deals with these companies.” NBPA leadership didn’t respond to the letter and the body’s executive director, Michele Roberts, did not respond to a POLITICO request for comment.

Despite growing congressional attention on NBA players with endorsements from the two firms, Congress can’t just tell players to end those deals. “I am not aware of any legislative tool that could be used to compel athletes to speak up or sever those relationships under existing law,” said John Grady, a sports law professor at the University of South Carolina.

Scott and fellow Republican Reps. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), Ronny L. Jackson (R-Texas) and Greg Steube (R-Fla.) are instead seeking leverage against Li-Ning, Anta and the NBA players they sponsor by pressuring the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to list the two firms on its Specially Designated Nationals list. SDN designation blocks the assets of individuals and companies listed and prohibits any U.S. citizens or permanent residents from doing business with them.

Perry accuses OFAC of bureaucratic foot-dragging by failing to mention in its July 16 response to his request whether OFAC had already imposed an SDN designation on the two firms and if not, the justification for not doing so. An OFAC spokesperson declined to comment about any “possible or pending sanctions actions or investigations” targeting Anta or Li-Ning. Perry says he’s willing to bypass OFAC and introduce legislation to sanction Anta and Li-Ning in a bid to “force the issue on the House floor.” Such moves may well prompt lawmakers to probe other U.S. entities with links to Li-Ning and Anta, including athletic apparel brand Lululemon founder Chip Wilson, who purchased a 0.6 percent stake in Anta in May 2019.

Meanwhile, Perry urges U.S. consumers to use their purchasing power to prod NBA players to sever relationships with the firms. “If you learn that NBA players are profiting off slave labor, don’t buy their apparel,” Scott said. “If their income from these endorsement deals start to dwindle, they’ll get the point.”

— A tech update from Protocol | China. Protocol | China, backed by Robert Allbritton, publisher of Protocol and POLITICO, tracks the intersection of technology and policy in the world’s largest country. Sign up for the newsletter and learn more about Protocol’s research here. This week’s coverage includes a look at who should be scared of China’s new digital yuan (and who shouldn’t), why China’s era of Big Tech Overwork is finally ending, and how web users wrote a new disaster playbook in real time by repurposing social platforms during the flooding in Henan province.

TRANSLATING WASHINGTON

China’s bellicose diplomatic style is here to stay: White House officials were probably hoping that the aggressive and accusatory style of engagement of Chinese officials at a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Anchorage in March was a one-off. Not so fast. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s account of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng on Monday made clear that such aggressive “wolf warrior” style diplomacy is now likely a feature of China’s engagement with the U.S., leading U.S. China experts say.

China’s increasingly “hawkish” diplomatic engagement reflects a worldview of President Xi Jinping that hinges on his belief “that China should more forcefully defend its interests,” Bonnie Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., told POLITICO. “Xi views the international balance of power as more favorable to China than in the past and wants to seize the period in which ‘The East is rising, and the West is falling’ to advance his agenda and objectives.”

Glaser adds that Xi also reaps a public opinion windfall from such tactics. “It’s popular at home — the domestic audience wants China to stand up to the United States [and] it promotes national unity in support of the CCP,” she added.

China’s aggressive diplomacy should also be understood from an “action-reaction” perspective, David C. Kang, professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California, told POLITICO. “Both the [U.S.] left and the right have zoomed over to a ‘blame China’ thesis and the Biden administration is just pummeling China on everything,” Kang said. “We’re acting surprised that China is standing up for itself after years of the U.S. pushing them around.”

But the implications of a further decline in U.S.-China relations requires Biden to take courageous, unilateral action in “averting the precipice” of a potentially dangerous deterioration in the relationship, warns Jerome A. Cohen, founder and faculty director emeritus of New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. Cohen urges Biden to demonstrate “presidential leadership” by making “a major speech to stem the adverse tide” in the relationship.

Biden’s challenge is to distance himself from rhetoric and policies “that distort and endanger our relations with China,” Cohen said. “What is needed is a mutual recognition by the U.S. and the PRC that it is time to sit down and discuss and try to resolve, issue by issue, some of the problems that are capable of management, if not solution, now.”

— Austin on China’s Pacific “aggression”: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reassured Indo-Pacific allies on Tuesday that the U.S. “will not flinch” in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese military moves in the region. In a speech to the Singapore office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Austin warned of Chinese threats to regional peace ranging from “aggression against India, destabilizing military activity and other forms of coercion against the people of Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.” Austin balanced the criticism by stating his hopes for a stable and constructive relationship between the U.S. and China, including cooperation on “common challenges, especially the threat of climate change.”

— Beijing Olympic sponsors under fire: U.S. lawmakers subjected representatives of U.S. corporate sponsors of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to scrutiny on Tuesday at a hearing of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Officials with Airbnb, The Coca-Cola Company, Procter & Gamble, Intel and Visa were questioned on how their firms “can leverage their influence to insist on concrete human rights improvements” in China and their strategies to manage “the material and reputational risks of being associated with an Olympic Games held in the midst of a genocide.” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), CECC co-chair, accused the corporate participants of “tiptoeing around the focus of the hearing” and refusing to openly talk about “what is happening in Xinjiang and to the Uyghurs.”

— U.S.-China Policy called “disaster”: Stephen A. Orlins, president of the New York-based National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, urged the Biden administration in a speech on Thursday to urgently change course to address the “disaster” of U.S. foreign policy over the past years. Orlins said that despite President Joe Biden’s campaign rhetoric about the damage inflicted by the Trump administration’s confrontational China policies, the administration has reversed “too few” of the policies. Orlins urged Biden to take steps to heal the bilateral rift through various measures, including revocation of Trump-era tariffs and restrictions on Chinese state media as well as “revisiting” ongoing delisting of Chinese firms from U.S. stock exchanges.

Translating China

— China’s new U.S. ambassador arrives in D.C.: “Arrived in USA. Looking forward to the coming time in the country.” That premier tweet on the new @ChinaAmbinUS Twitter account on Wednesday signaled the arrival of China’s new ambassador to the U.S., Qin Gang. And it may well be one of the few expressions of uncharacteristic reserve we’ll hear from Qin during his Washington tenure. That’s because Qin, 55, is recognized as a founding practitioner of a relatively new and patently aggressive “wolf warrior” strain of Chinese diplomacy that is increasingly defining Chinese engagement with the Biden administration. Qin’s Foreign Ministry career began in 1988 and has included stints as spokesperson and vice minister of foreign affairs. In remarks delivered to the media on his arrival Thursday, Qin declared the U.S-China relationship is at “a new critical juncture, facing not only many difficulties and challenges but also great opportunities and potentials.”

— China retaliates against U.S. sanctions: A recent flurry of U.S. government sanctions against Chinese companies and an official warning about the deterioration of rule of law in Hong Kong reaped its first explicit response on Friday when China imposed sanctions against seven U.S. citizens. The Chinese Foreign Ministry described those sanctions —the details of which it didn’t provide — as an explicit retaliation against the State Department’s July 16 sanctions against seven Chinese officials with Hong Kong’s Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government. A Chinese Foreign Ministry statement also linked the sanctions against the U.S. citizens to a recent Biden administration “Business Advisory” the administration issued on July 16 that warned U.S. firms operating in Hong Kong of increased hazards to the security and integrity of their operations. Those sanctioned included former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross; U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Chair Carolyn Bartholomew; and China Director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson. The Foreign Ministry statement said the U.S. actions “gravely violate international law and basic norms governing international relations, and severely interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

— “Patriots” obstruct Western media flood coverage: Weibo resounded with the hashtag #BBCRumor” last week, registering more than 100 million shares by Tuesday. The hashtag flagged an online citizens’ witch hunt that targeted BBC correspondent Robin Brant in retaliation for alleged defamatory inaccuracies in his reporting on the drowning deaths of people trapped in a flooded subway station in Henan province’s Zhengzhou city. Brandt’s reporting was subsequently verified by Chinese state media. But not before the Henan Communist Youth League and assorted “Red V” verified Chinese nationalist commentators stoked public anger and an on-the-ground search for Brandt in Zhengzhou by circulating his photos online with comments, including: “The people of Zhengzhou should actively respond to the call. This reporter looks like this. It is best not to use Shaolin Kungfu [to detain him].” The search resulted in multiple foreign journalists from outlets, including Deutsche Welle, the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera, being accosted and harassed on the streets by people mistaking them for Brant. The incidents, as well as online death threats targeting the BBC team in Henan, prompted the BBC to issue a statement Tuesday urging the Chinese government “to stop these attacks which continue to endanger foreign correspondents.”

— Weibo reins in attacks on Olympian: Weibo is brimming with hashtags hailing the Chinese Olympic team’s victories at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. But Weibo censors stepped in on Sunday when online comments targeting Chinese Olympian Wang Luyao turned vicious after she posted on her personal Weibo account an online apology — since deleted — for placing 16th in the 10-meter air rifle qualifying round. “Sorry everyone, I admit I chickened out. See you in three years,” she wrote in the apology, prompting a wave of sharp derision that singled out everything from the wording of her message to her choice of clothing for the posting’s selfie. Weibo responded by banning 33 users for “defaming” Lu and deleting 35 comments. Lu’s Weibo-based fans responded to those online attacks with the more supportive home province pride hashtag #Wang Luyao is still a great Zhejiang girl, which had racked up more than 500 million shares by Tuesday.

— Xi Jinping expands toilet revolution: Chinese President Xi Jinping renewed his call on Friday for a “toilet revolution.” Xi urged attendees at a national meeting in Hunan province to redouble efforts to create “cleaner toilets” for rural residents as one of the government’s “rural vitalization” efforts. Xi said that the rural phase of the ongoing “toilet revolution,” which he launched in 2015, aims to create more hygienic toilet facilities for rural dwellers. It had already resulted in “notable improvements” in rural living, he said.

Hot from the China Watchersphere

— U.K. mulls blocking Chinese investments: The deterioration in the United Kingdom’s bilateral relationship with China is prompting U.K. ministers to seek measures to block Chinese investment in the country’s nuclear power sector, the BBC reported on Monday. China’s state nuclear agency, China General Nuclear Power, has an existing 20 percent stake in the U.K.’s Sizewell C nuclear plant in Suffolk. However, bilateral tensions between China and the U.K. have soared over issues, including China’s imposition of a draconian National Security Law in Hong Kong in June 2020 and the U.K.’s ban on the sale of 5G telecommunications equipment from Huawei, the Chinese technology firm.

— China’s new nuclear missile fields raise eyebrows: A Federation of American Scientists report released Monday indicates that the Chinese government is pursuing “the most significant expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal ever.” The expansion, detected on satellite imagery, depicts two new silo fields under construction in Gansu province and in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Gansu facility has capacity for 120 missile silos while the site in eastern Xinjiang has capacity for at least 33. The report attributes the expansion of the silos — which may provide capacity to at least double the country’s current stockpile of 350 nuclear warheads by 2030 — to “a logical reaction to a dynamic arms competition” among nuclear states the U.S., Russia and India.

Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Luiza Ch. Savage, Matt Kaminski and editor John Yearwood.

Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week’s items? Email us at [email protected].

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