China's reaction to the NBA is the wake

NBA China | 2019-10-09 03:00:25

Many financial journalists and political pundits have been trying for years to get the U.S. public more concerned about China's increasingly repressive regime and the questionable trade-offs many American companies have been making to continue doing business in the country. Thanks to the NBA, Twitter and a Chinese government that feeds a national "outrage culture," those journalists and pundits won't have to try so hard anymore. Coverage of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey's now-deleted tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests , and the response to it from China and the NBA, has already earned more attention than dozens of other stories in recent years documenting similar questionable relationships between U.S.-based companies and Beijing.

For millions of people who have been a little more focused on the hardwood than hard news copy, this story is having much more of an impact than the years of reporting on Google's questionable cooperation with Beijing on creating a censored, government-controlled search engine , or even the U.N. report that said China is holding a million people in "counter-extremism centres" and forced another 2 million into "re-education camps." Many of these newly engaged people are likely now learning that the last few years might have missed the fact that so much of what was promised to us about China hasn't come true. China's increasing economic engagement with the free countries of the West was supposed to open the country up to more democracy and freedom. Instead, the overwhelming evidence shows the government in Beijing has used its growing wealth and economic influence to suppress the population even more , build up its military to antagonize more of its neighbors , and increase its repressive influence abroad with massive infrastructure programs that actually translate into high-risk debt for the takers

Many NBA fans who might have been excited or just indifferent about their beloved league's increasing business connections with China are now asking whether promoting the game is worth the concessions and kowtowing to Beijing. Based on what we hear on New York area sports radio the last few days, fans of the Brooklyn Nets are certainly asking that question and also scrutinizing new Nets owner Joe Tsai. Tsai responded quickly to the Morey tweet controversy with a lengthy Facebook post Sunday night. Tsai's post is exceedingly disturbing for two reasons. One, it reads exactly like something the government in Beijing would write, filled with trigger phrases the Chinese government often uses like "separatist movement," "territorial integrity," "sovereignty," "invasion of Chinese territories by foreign forces," and many more. Second, Tsai descends into the same false argument Beijing often uses when it comes to the Hong Kong protests. The Chinese government likes to focus on the alleged separatist nature of the movement. That's because it makes it sound like a destructive rebellion by an isolated part of the region.

But Tsai should know that the Hong Kong protesters are fighting for democracy, not separatism. In fact, they're hoping their democratic fight spreads to the mainland and brings freedom for all Chinese people. It's Beijing that's promoting separatism by refusing to grant democratic rights to anyone, not the Hong Kong protesters. Thankfully, Tsai has not deleted many of the comments on his post that explain that very fact. Tsai's public reaction is informative as it helps us answer why China and so many Chinese people seem to be so thin-skinned about incidents like Morey's tweet. Tsai's references to China's past suffering from invasions and hegemonic domination makes it clear that the regime and Beijing and perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese people are fully immersed in the culture of victimhood. That's right, the world's still fastest-growing economy and a nuclear-armed power to boot still considers itself a victimized nation with plenty of scores to settle. Six months before the protest movement began, Hong Kong journalist and TV host Michael Chugani described just how strong and blinding this wounded attitude runs throughout all of China . Any insult to Chinese political sovereignty is automatically a major crisis-level incident. Chugani even noted that this culture of Chinese victimhood serves as an excuse for a myriad of insults and downright bigoted attacks against other people promoted on Chinese state TV with regularity The NBA is not likely to face a debilitating series of protests from U.S. fans who may be angered by the league's agonizingly cautious and wavering responses to Morey's tweet. But the extreme attention the story has garnered does weaken the NBA's efforts to cast itself as a force for positive social change. Commissioner Adam Silver's public declaration of his "personal outrage" over the racist comments made by former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling in 2014 , and his pushback against the passing of the controversial transgender bathroom law in North Carolina in 2016 seem inconsistent now with a league that remains silent about China's many human rights abuses. The NBA has now unintentionally brought the controversial compromises so many American businesses make with Beijing into their biggest-ever spotlight. To borrow an old marketing line used by the league in the 1980s , that new awareness is "FAN-tastic." Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny

Daryl Morey China tweet has "economic impact" already NBA chief Adam Silver says as Chinese state television CCTV cancels broadcast plan

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tried to walk a fine line Tuesday as he defended the league's reputation as a progressive purveyor of free speech — but also to limit the financial damage caused by a single tweet that China deemed a direct insult.

China's behemoth national broadcaster CCTV announced it would no longer air the two NBA preseason games set to take place in China this week. They said it was in response to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's "inappropriate Hong Kong-related remarks."

Morey sent a tweet voicing support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters over the weekend, then deleted it. He sent several tweets apologizing for offending any Chinese people, and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta also tweeted what amounted to an apology and distanced the team from the general manager's remarks.

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Silver and the NBA came to Morey's defense but tried to keep the league's stance neutral. The league released a statement on the controversy accepting that Morey's remark might have "deeply offended" some fans in China, and stressing that the Rockets GM "does not represent the Rockets or the NBA."

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media October 8, 2019. Getty

Silver has been put in a delicate position since Morey's tweet went public, mainly due to the business relationship the NBA has with China. The NBA said the number of pro basketball fans in China is twice the U.S. population. The NBA also has a $1.5 billion deal with a Chinese streaming company.

"I don't think it's inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them, and at the same time stand by our principles," said Silver during a news conference in Tokyo. Silver was in Japan on Tuesday for a preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors. 

That qualified defense brought criticism from U.S. politicians of all stripes, who slammed the league for bending to Chinese pressure. Republican U.S. senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Rick Scott of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri and Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii all chimed in to criticize the apologetic tone adopted by the NBA.

"We're better than this; human rights shouldn't be for sale & the NBA shouldn't be assisting Chinese communist censorship," said Cruz in a tweet.

We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.

— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 7, 2019

Hawley sniped: "Chinese govt has a million people locked in concentration camps & is trying to brutally repress Hong Kong demonstrators — and NBA wants to 'bridge cultural divides'? Cultural divides?'"

"The scope of freedom of speech"

The statement released by China's CCTV on Tuesday shows the struggle for U.S. organizations that do business with a nation that takes a starkly different view on "free speech."

"We are strongly dissatisfied and opposed Adam (Silver)'s claim to support Morey's rights of free expression. We believe that any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech," the network said. "To this end, CCTV Sports Channel decided to immediately suspend the current broadcast arrangements of the NBA preseason (China games) and immediately investigate all cooperation and exchanges involving the NBA."

The relationship between China and the NBA is worth billions of dollars between media rights, online streaming or games and huge merchandise sales, and Silver conceded Tuesday that the effect of the spat was apparent.

"There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear," Silver told Japanese news agency Kyodo. "There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have."

"There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression," Silver told Kyodo. "I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear ... that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression."

"I accept that it is also Chinese governments' and Chinese businesses' right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues," Silver said on Tuesday.

Silver said the NBA would continue to protect NBA employees' right to voice their opinions, regardless of consequences. He said the league had spoken with Hall of Fame player and Chinese Basketball Association President Yao Ming, whom he described as "extremely upset." 

"I think it's unfortunate," said Silver, who will meet with Chinese officials on Wednesday. "But if that's the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel it's important."

Rockets star James Harden apologized for Morey's tweet spoke directly to Chinese basketball fans. "We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there," Harden told reporters after practice Monday. "For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love."

N.B.A. Commissioner Commits to Free Speech as Chinese Companies Cut Ties

The N.B.A.’s decades-long push to develop China into its biggest overseas market appeared increasingly in jeopardy on Tuesday as the league’s commissioner stood firm in the face of criticism from Beijing and the Chinese threatened financial repercussions. The threats began when China’s state-run television announced it would not broadcast two N.B.A. preseason games this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen that would feature basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Hours later, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, issued an emphatic defense of its employees’ right to speak out on political issues. That followed days of intense criticism accusing Silver of trying to appease one of the world’s most autocratic governments after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech,” Silver said. The N.B.A. has made global expansion — particularly into China — a core part of its mission. The preseason games are part of a set of events designed to promote the league in the country — including basketball clinics, fan gatherings and various public appearances by players.

But the league’s Chinese campaign has been overshadowed by the single pro-Hong Kong tweet on Friday night from Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, who shared an image that contained the words “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The phrase is a popular slogan at the protests in Hong Kong that have raged for months. The tweet put the league in a situation familiar to many global companies seeking to do business in a Communist country with 1.4 billion people: Any misstep could mean swiftly losing access to a powerful economy. China Central Television, the state broadcaster, made clear the risks of challenging Beijing, chiding the league for an earlier expression of support for Morey’s free speech rights. “We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said in its statement announcing the cancellation of the N.B.A. broadcasts. “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.” At a news conference in Japan — where the Rockets played the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — Silver said that the Chinese broadcast cancellation was unexpected and that a community outreach event scheduled to take place at a school in Shanghai had also been canceled.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.”

Silver planned to travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and said he hoped to meet with Chinese government officials to try to defuse the conflict. “But I’m a realist as well, and I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly,” Silver said.

Both Democrats and Republicans have castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation: a statement on Sunday that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people in China. The N.B.A. also said that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.” Silver responded again on Tuesday morning with a statement that said: “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the N.B.A. to adjudicate those differences.”

The statement continued: “However, the N.B.A. will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.” Chinese government and basketball officials, as well as Chinese companies, had pressured the N.B.A. to be more critical of Morey, and to go beyond a version of the league’s statement that appeared on Chinese social media platforms on Sunday. In that statement, the league appeared to call Morey’s tweet “inappropriate.” (The league denied that the difference in translation was intentional and said the English version should be considered its official response.)

Despite the controversy, as of Tuesday, the preseason games had not been canceled, even though they would not be broadcast in China. The Lakers were scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. In a lengthy Facebook post this week, Tsai criticized Morey’s tweet as damaging to the N.B.A. in China. Also, an editorial in the South China Morning Post , which is owned by Alibaba , carried the headline: “Sports loses out when politics enters play.”

Multiple Chinese companies, including Luckin Coffee and Anta, a sportswear brand that sponsors N.B.A. players, announced Tuesday that they were suspending partnerships with the league. “The N.B.A. has been in cooperation with China for many years,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing on Tuesday. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”

Criticism of the N.B.A. also has come from pro-Hong Kong activists and their supporters in the United States, who have accused Silver of capitulating to an authoritarian government. Silver, in an interview with CNN after his news conference on Tuesday, hinted at frustration over the way the league’s actions have been received. “I will say I’m a bit surprised that CCTV canceled the telecasting of preseason games, and specifically named me as the cause,” Silver said. “It’s interesting, while at the same time in the U.S. media, there is some suggesting I am not being protective enough of our employees. Clearly, they’re seeing it the other way in China, but I think, at the end of the day, we have been pretty consistent.” The backlash hasn’t been limited to Silver and Morey. The Rockets superstar James Harden was criticized on social media for offering an apology to China while standing next to his teammate Russell Westbrook.

Other basketball figures have steered clear of the topic. Steve Kerr, the typically outspoken coach of the Golden State Warriors, declined to comment on Monday, telling reporters, “It’s a really bizarre international story, and a lot of us really don’t know what to make of it.” One notable exception was another outspoken coach, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. He praised Silver’s remarks, saying: “He came out strongly for freedom of speech today. I felt great again. He’s been a heck of a leader in that respect and very courageous. Then you compare it to what we’ve had to live through the past three years , it’s a big difference. A big gap there, leadership-wise and courage-wise.”

DeAndre Jordan of the Nets told ESPN that it was unfortunate for events to be canceled, but that the players aren’t experts on Hong Kong. “What we are experts in is basketball, and we wanted to come here to promote basketball and see all of our fans in China,” Jordan said. Silver acknowledged that Morey, who has routinely weighed in on political issues, had particularly incensed Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets star who now leads the Chinese Basketball Association. The association said it was suspending a partnership with the Rockets. “I think Yao is extremely unsettled,” Silver said. “I’m not sure he quite accepts sort of how we are operating our business right now, and again, I accept that we have a difference of opinion. I’m hoping that together Yao Ming and I can find an accommodation. But he is extremely hot at the moment, and I understand it.”

NBA boss Adam Silver defends freedom of speech amid China row

Image copyrightGetty Images

The US National Basketball Association (NBA) has defended free speech amid a row with China over a team executive's tweet in support of Hong Kong protests.

The tweet posted by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, caused uproar in China and his attempt to backtrack upset American fans.

But NBA boss Adam Silver defended Mr Morey and said the league would "support freedom of expression".

NBA games draw huge viewership in China, mainly via streaming platforms.

The Rockets have been popular there since the team signed Chinese star Yao Ming in 2002. Mr Yao now heads the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

But Mr Morey's tweet prompted a furious backlash in China, with broadcasters vowing to stop airing Rockets games.

They went further on Tuesday by scrapping plans to broadcast two NBA pre-season games being played in China.

The NBA is just the latest international business to be embroiled in controversy in both China and the US over the Hong Kong protests. But the organisation's strong defence of freedom of expression is unusual.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Yao Ming - 7ft 6ins tall (2.29m) - played for the Houston Rockets between 2002 and 2011

How did the controversy start?

On Friday, Mr Morey posted a tweet with an image captioned: "Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong."

He was referencing months of pro-democracy protests in the territory, which is part of China but enjoys unique freedoms.

Chinese officials and media have reacted furiously to foreign expressions of support for the protesters and accused the West of interfering in Chinese affairs.

In response to Mr Morey's tweet, state-run broadcaster CCTV and Tencent Holdings, which streams NBA games in China, said they would stop broadcasting Rockets matches.

On Sunday the CBA suspended co-operation with the team, as did Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning and the club's sponsor in China, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.

Image copyrightReuters
Image caption Daryl Morey is regarded as an innovative figure in the NBA

On Monday, Mr Morey deleted the tweet and said: "I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event."

"I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors," he added.

But American fans reacted angrily to his apology, with one tweet saying: "You shouldn't have to apologise for supporting freedom."

How did the NBA respond?

On Tuesday Mr Silver issued a statement saying: "The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues."

He later told reporters in Japan that the league would not compromise its values on freedom of speech and was motivated by more than money.

The NBA commissioner said he understood there would be consequences but that "we will have to live with those consequences."

He said he would travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and meet the officials to try to "find mutual respect". But he recognised that "this issue might not die down so quickly".

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption The Houston Rockets played the Toronto Raptors in Japan on Tuesday

His defence of free speech in the face of Chinese anger is seen as a bold move, given the potential financial impact for the NBA.

"The vast majority of foreign companies apologize profusely at the first sign of discontent from Chinese consumers, which makes the NBA's response all the more remarkable," tweeted Mark Dreyer, an expert on China's sports industry.

How has this story played out in the US?

Initially the Rockets and the NBA distanced themselves from Mr Morley's tweet. This provoked accusations from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers that the league was bowing to Beijing.

Former US presidential hopeful - and Rockets fan - Ted Cruz accused the NBA of "shamefully retreating" in pursuit of profit.

Mr Cruz said he was proud to see Mr Morey "call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong".

Fellow Republican Senator Ben Sasse called the NBA's response "shameful".

Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro tweeted that the US must "not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government".

Who else has angered China over Hong Kong?

Also on Tuesday, a Hong-Kong professional gamer was banned by game-maker Blizzard from competing for 12 months for staging an anti-government protest.

Ng Wai Chung put on a gas mask and shouted: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age," after a Grandmasters Hearthstone tournament.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Ng Wai Chung wore the gas mask to show solidarity with Hong Kong protesters, who wear them to avoid tear gas

In September, Zara became a target of anger on Chinese social media after some of its Hong Kong stores closed on a day of strike action.

China accused the retailer of encouraging its employees to join the strike but Zara said it was just ensuring its shops were not understaffed if transport was disrupted.

In August the chief executive of airline Cathay Pacific stood down after the company shifted its stance on whether employees could join protests.

And in the same month Versace had to apologise to China after one of its T-shirts appeared to imply Hong Kong and Macau were independent territories.