08. South, East, & Southeast Asia, Teaching

Lesson Plan: Hong Kong Protests via Twitter

Lesson Plan: Hong Kong Protests via Twitter

*Disclaimer: This lesson plan was in no way written as a connection/reflection of the current protesting going on in the United States sparked by the death of George Floyd in the hands of police. It does, however, serve as a sad “funhouse mirror” of current events. I taught this lesson in the “time before corona” aka February 2020 🙂 although when I teach this next year, it will inevitably be changed because we have been changed from this.

As a world history teacher I am keenly aware of my position and power for the future of our country. We have the ability to get students to deeply look at the past of the world they actively live in and help them to understand their place in it for the future. But we also have the power to exclude, twist, and proselytize  – all things that have no place in the classroom. I love connecting past events and peoples to our present world but knowing the political climate I live in I am careful to keep my class apolitical. Please do not confuse being apolitical as IGNORING politics! They are not the same thing! As you will see in the lesson below, this whole lesson is “political” but it was very well received and navigated in a way that I was explicitly not telling my students what to think, feel, or do, just to learn.

Before this AP World History lesson I had not ever taught with Twitter as a primary document and boy was I missing out! I will go through how I worked through each “document” with my students and not only taught the skills of evaluating sources but also taught some of the effects of the Opium Wars to our contemporary world.

*A note about my title: as teachers we have watch the words we use, I chose to use the word “protest” not “riot” in this lesson. There are many sources that use the word “riot” and maybe, as things played out, that is the best word but I prefer to use a more neutral term to describe this topic. And I will keep to this vocabulary choice as I teach this again in the 2020-2021 school year, as using the word “riot” may not create the right climate in my classroom considering current events.

Source 1: Daryl Morey

I start my lesson with this image above. I asked the students to help me source it like they would any AP World History document:

  • Historical Context – the students give me whatever they can about the Hong Kong protests: Hong Kong is fighting a “cracking down” from the Chinese Communist government and want more freedoms
  • Audience – students know this is from Twitter (I joke with them that future AP students in the year 3000 may have to have that explained to them); Twitter is a public platform so his audience is literally potentially the “whole world”
  • Purpose – clearly this document is demonstrating that the author wants to indicate he is for the protests happening in Hong Kong
  • Perspective – now this is where my basketball players help us out a bit: at the time the document was written, Daryl Morey was the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, which is an NBA team

I ask my students if they see anything “controversial” with the text? They unequivocally say no. I remind them that they are American public high school students in [insert year here]. They laugh (or chuckle at least) and I ask them again, could there by anything “controversial” about this? A student *hopefully* perks up and says “Well the Chinese government probably doesn’t like the message.” Thank you imaginary student, you are helping me make my next point.

Source 2: NBA Statement

The next image I show them is obviously referencing the previous tweet. With this statement we can talk a few different things: 1. freedom of speech as an individual and 2. corporate “conservative” responses (by conservative I do not mean anything associated with a political party). I ask my students about Daryl Morey has “freedom of speech” so say whatever he wants, as long as it is legal, and we had a wonderful discussion that once you’re a public figure, even though this is not the Houston Rockets’ Twitter, it is always associated with him representing that brand, that image. And then we dismantle why the NBA would care. Well businesses care when their profits are hurt (not surprising). So the question is how was their bottom line damaged. In my class this past year it worked out that I happened to have avid basketball fans who knew all about China’s love for basketball and one kid even spouted statistics of revenue. But if you don’t have that, this press release is clearly trying to appeal to Chinese fans while also acknowledging an important American right: freedom of speech.

Read more: The First Amendment & 2020 America

Source 3: Daryl Morey’s Apology

The first thing I do is have the students look at the dates: the NBA press release was October 6 and this was October 7. Knowing that, they can easily build a storyline. The students can clearly see that this apology is in light of the response of the NBA. Now we look at this Tweet as a document, what does it show us? Does Daryl Morey take back his original Tweet here or just reframe it? Is this enough to placate China? Should he care about placating China?

One nice thing about Twitter, is that is shows us a particular tweets “reach”.” I didn’t have to time break that down in analysis but that could be a cool comparison of audience comments, retweets, and likes.

*Note: My students who know about the NBA, they told the class that the NBA lost billions of dollars in game revenue & merchandise sales.

Sources 4-6: US Senators’ Responses

Ah US politics!!! This is how I kept this from getting “too political.” I showed tweets from both sides of the aisle specifically in support of Hong Kong & I add in Ted Cruz’s tweet because it specifically calls out the NBA. We go through elements of sourcing: their perspective, as members of the US Senate, is TOTALLY different than Daryl Morey & the NBA. And here’s where I ask a few questions to see if my kids are paying attention to the news. Why would members of the US government be so interested in pushing back on the Chinese government in the fall of 2019? The Chinese tariff wars. Now in future, I might have to fill that in but to see my kids faces when they started connecting all the dots was glorious.

*Note: Next year, this part of the lesson will feel and look very different. Regardless of your personal opinion of the current Black Lives Matter protests the US government (Republican) tweets are glaringly different when it comes to supporting protestors in Hong Kong from police brutality versus American citizens.

Source 7: Joe Tsai’s Response

And now the last part of my lesson, the thing that ties this to the Opium Wars (it’s long; I read out the whole text to my class but you can cut parts out if needed for time).

Open letter to all NBA fans:

When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn’t expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened.

By now you have heard that Chinese fans have reacted extremely negatively to a tweet put out by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of protests in Hong Kong. The Rockets, who by far had been the favorite team in China, are now effectively shut out of the Chinese market as fans abandon their love for the team, broadcasters refuse to air their games and Chinese corporates pull sponsorships in droves.

Fans in China are calling for an explanation – if they are not getting it from the Houston Rockets, then it is natural that they ask others associated with the NBA to express a view. The NBA is a fan-first league. When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up.

What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues. The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities. Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

A bit of historical perspective is important. In the mid-19th century, China fought two Opium Wars with the British, aided by the French, who forced through illegal trade of opium to China. A very weak Qing Dynasty government lost the wars and the result was the ceding of Hong Kong to the British as a colony.

The invasion of Chinese territories by foreign forces continued against a weak and defenseless Qing government, which precipitated in the Boxer Rebellion by Chinese peasants at the turn of the 20th century. In response, the Eight Nations Alliance – comprised of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary – dispatched their forces to occupy Chinese territories in the name of humanitarian intervention. The foreign forces marched into the Chinese capital Peking (now called Beijing), defeated the peasant rebels and proceeded to loot and pillage the capital city.

In 1937, Japan invaded China by capturing Beijing, Shanghai and the then-Chinese capital Nanjing. Imperial Japanese troops committed mass murder and rape against the residents of Nanjing, resulting in several hundred thousand civilian deaths. The war of resistance by the Chinese against Japan ended after tens of millions of Chinese casualties, and only after America joined the war against Japan post-Pearl Harbor.

I am going into all of this because a student of history will understand that the Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories. When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation.

By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China. I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.

I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China. I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.


Joe Tsai

At the end of this lesson we had a great conversation about the mistake of reducing any issue to purely black and white: making the NBA the “money-grabbing enemy” and Daryl Morey the “heroic political ally.” I tell them it is always up to you what to support and what to post but everything has a complex history. Learning that history can make you a better global citizen.


P.S. with lessons like this I do not think your personal opinion, as a teacher, matters. Sorry but sometimes I don’t think it’s appropriate to share that. I choose not disclose where I stand on the topic, even when asked privately by a student. You may choose to do it differently, but I tried my hardest to keep this lesson as a-political as possible.

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