Basketball Fans in China and the U.S. Angered Over Free Speech Controversy

Following a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in which he expressed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the Chinese government has made moves to ban the team–one of the most popular NBA teams in China–from the country. Morey’s comment inflamed nationalist sentiment in China, while the NBA’s response has angered basketball fans in the U.S. Since the Hong Kong protest movement started in June, the Chinese government has targeted foreign businesses and celebrities who show support for the protests and has tried to guide foreign reporting on the unrest. Dan Woike reports for the Los Angeles Times:

Those words caused a swell of geopolitical consequences that soon hit the NBA like a tidal wave, jeopardizing billions in business deals with companies in apparel and broadcasting. Even as increasingly violent demonstrations rage against the country’s authoritarian government, the message was clear: if you want to do business in China, you don’t criticize the government.

The Rockets, who have been among the most popular teams in China since they drafted Yao Ming with the first pick of the 2002 draft, were soon being erased from an enormous and still relatively untapped market the league and American apparel companies have coveted for years.

Tencent, a Shenzhen-based technology giant that earlier this summer extended its partnership with the NBA to 2024, decided to not air the team’s games. How the controversy might affect the Lakers isn’t clear. The team was expected to arrive in China on Tuesday afternoon (Monday in Los Angeles) and is scheduled to play two games against the Brooklyn Nets, one in Shanghai, the other in Shenzhen, which is near Hong Kong. [Source]

Morey subsequently issued an apology:

Daniel Victor reports for The New York Times on the financial consequences imposed on the Rockets by Beijing in response to the tweet, and how the NBA’s response did little to quell anger in the U.S., especially given the league’s previous support for players’ and managers’ free speech in the U.S.:

Sponsors in China paused their deals with the Rockets, and the country’s main broadcaster said it would remove the team’s games from its schedule. Two exhibition games scheduled for a low-level team affiliated with the Rockets were also canceled.

The issue is familiar to Hollywood studios, major companies and individual athletes chasing business in a country with 1.4 billion people, and the N.B.A.’s reaction reflects a corporate sensitivity toward China’s low tolerance for criticism of its political system.

The league’s statement, in turn, inflamed supporters of the Hong Kong protests and many fans in the United States, where the protesters are generally seen as battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights. [Source]

Anger was further inflamed in the U.S. when it was discovered that the NBA issued different statements in English and Chinese, with the latter using stronger language to disavow Morey’s statement:

But the apologies kept coming. NBA star James Harden issued his own apology to China, while Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai, also a cofounder of Alibaba, issued a statement condemning Morey’s words:

Other prominent figures in the NBA, like the Golden State Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr, who is known for his outspoken political views on U.S. affairs, held off before responding:

This afternoon, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver offered some support to Morey in the midst of the media frenzy. From ESPN:

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver said. “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.

“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.” [Source]

Meanwhile, human rights advocates and journalists offered a reminder that the NBA is currently operating training camps in Xinjiang, site of internment camps holding up to 1.5 million Muslim Uyghurs:

Jamil Smith, in a column in Rolling Stone, summed up the anger at the NBA’s hypocrisy:

The Rockets and the NBA could have stood up for Morey, for decency, and for the protesters and their human rights. More than 2,000 have been injured in months of demonstrations that the Chinese government characterizes as “riots,” but selling sneakers, jerseys, and the game But they instead folded all too readily, all too eager to hold onto the dollars that they glean from the Communist nation.

[…]For all its MLK Day t-shirts and other symbolic gestures towards wokeness here in the States, this is still the league that sees fit to do business with a regime that represses human rights whenever given the chance.The league even has a presence in Xinjang, in the northwest of the country. It is the Chinese region where Slate reported last year the nation’s authorities were holding roughly one million Muslims, the Turkic-speaking minority called Uighurs, in concentration camps. The NBA has a different kind of camp there — one of its three national training camps — in Ürümqi, Xinjang’s capital. [Source]

While the NBA claimed to be speaking out of concern for offense caused to its fans in China, many of the accounts posting angry responses to Morey appear to be bots or newly created accounts:

And some evidence of support for Morey has been found online in China:

An internet user in Jilin was detained after posting a photo of himself with an unlit lighter in front of the national flag while he wears a Rockets jersey.

Another, slightly more facetious, apology to China also came out today, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of animated comedy show South Park. Their show has itself been banned in China following the release of a full episode on the ways in which Hollywood and other U.S. corporate entities acquiesce to Chinese government demands for censorship. The Hollywood Reporter wrote about the controversy and published the “apology”:

“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the statement reads. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?” [Source]

The full South Park episode, Band in China, can be viewed on Comedy Central.


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