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As the Hong Kong protests enter their fifth month, the clash between the democratic ideals of demonstrators and the authoritarianism of Beijing is now being felt in corporate America. This week, the National Basketball Association faces the choice all companies working in China must face: Free speech or access to the massive Chinese market?
On Friday, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image with the popular protest slogan: “Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” He quickly deleted the message, but the damage was done: Chinese sponsors paused their deals with the Rockets, major Chinese broadcasters dropped Rockets games, and two exhibition games for a team affiliated with the Rockets were canceled, according to The New York Times.
The NBA is extremely popular in China, with tech company Tencent reporting that 490 million people watched NBA programming last year. The Rockets have a huge Chinese fan base because Chinese native Yao Ming played for the team for nearly a decade.
Concerned about losing the Chinese market, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta distanced himself from Morey, noting that Morey did not speak for the team and that the NBA was not a political organization. On Sunday night, Morey followed up with a tweet that read, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”
NBA spokesman Mike Bass on Sunday sent out a statement saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” But the Chinese-language statement the NBA posted on Weibo used much stronger language, saying it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment” and that Morey’s views “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
The NBA faced a backlash from politicians and Americans who saw the organization as choosing money over morals. In the United States, the NBA had allowed its players and coaches to express political views regarding racism, police shootings, and gun control. The league refused to hold its All-Star Game in North Carolina because of a bathroom bill that the NBA claimed discriminated against transgender people.
“Basketball fans and the American people more broadly should have absolutely no doubt about what is happening here: The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing.” Other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have also criticized the move, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a Democratic presidential candidate.
Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, a Taiwan-born billionaire and the co-founder of Alibaba Group, issued a statement criticizing Morey. He claimed that Westerners misunderstood that all 1.4 billion Chinese “stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland,” and added that the pro-democracy protesters supported a “separatist movement.” (Most Hong Kongers are not fighting for independence, but for China to give them the political autonomy it once promised.)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told a Japanese publication that he supported Morey’s right to free speech. In response, Chinese government-run CCTV announced Tuesday it would stop broadcasting NBA preseason games. “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA—and will continue to do so,” Silver reiterated in a statement Tuesday. “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.”
Chinese censors also banned South Park, the irreverent animated show on Comedy Central, from the Chinese internet Monday after a recent episode mocked how filmmakers censor their own movies to appeal to the Chinese market. A character in the show gets caught bringing marijuana into China and is sent to a labor camp similar to the ones in Xinjiang in which authorities are holding more than 1 million Uighurs.
In response to their banishment, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone crafted their own fake apology, mocking how China had banned images of Winnie the Pooh because of memes that compared the President Xi Jinping to the Disney cartoon character.
“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the sarcastic statement read. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. … Long live the great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?”
U.S. action at last:
On Monday, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted 28 Chinese tech companies and government agencies for their involvement in the monitoring and detainment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region. The groups, which include Hikvision and Megvii Technology, will be barred from buying products from U.S. companies without approval from Washington.