An anodyne tweet expressing support for Hong Kong protesters has triggered a crisis between the National Basketball Association and China, imperiling billions of dollars in business for the U.S. sports league. It is not the first time that China has used its monster market to intimidate organizations that seek to make money in that country, and it will not be the last. China’s success in this case may not be a slam dunk, however: The popularity of the NBA’s product and the inadequacy of the substitutes may shift the balance of power. Nevertheless, this incident is yet another reminder of the lengths China will go to muzzle criticism or any view that it considers inimical to its interests.
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey triggered the spat when he tweeted “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” That prompted the Chinese Basketball Association to announce that it would sever ties with the Rockets. Tencent, the NBA’s rights holder in China, and the Rockets’ Chinese sponsors, made a similar decision. Two days later, China’s state TV said it would not broadcast games of the Rockets, and a day later two NBA G League games between teams affiliated with Houston and Dallas were canceled.
Chinese were offended by Morey’s tweet, charging that it was insensitive to the country’s history of colonial subjugation, its fears of division and weakness, and thus hurt the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people. They were especially aggrieved as Chinese fans have had a special relationship with Houston, which is the team of Yao Ming, the first Chinese superstar in the NBA who has since gone on to become president of the CBA.
China should have leverage. The NBA is banking much of its future on China. League Commissioner Adam Silver calls the country a top priority and an “enormous opportunity.” While the courtship only began in 1987, the NBA estimates that 640 million Chinese viewers watched NBA content during the 2017-2018 season. Twenty-one million people in China watched the final game of last year’s NBA finals, more TV spectators than in the United States. Every fall, the league sends teams to China for exhibition games. The NBA signed a five-year contract extension with Tencent to stream games that is reportedly worth $1.5 billion, or $133 million per NBA team.
Cognizant of the potential damage, the NBA released its own statement saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” It went on to say the league has “great respect for the history and culture of China.” Morey deleted his tweet and released a statement saying that “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” adding that “I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention.” Neither statement went far enough to assuage Chinese fans, some of whom are calling for a boycott.
That damage control by the NBA may not satisfy China, but it was enough to trigger a backlash in the U.S., with politicians from both political parties and commentators condemning its failure to be as vocal in China over the protection of rights as it is in the U.S., where the NBA is forward-leaning in its statements and posture in such issues. Bluntly put, the league was accused of putting its financial interests ahead of its principles. The list of firms deserving such criticism is long. Hollywood, for example, has been under sharp scrutiny for its self-censorship to ensure that its products are shown in China.
China is quick to punish businesses that cross it: Airlines and hotels have been condemned for having websites that identify Hong Kong or Taiwan as separate from China. Quoting the Dalai Lama in an ad was enough for Mercedes Benz to be called an “enemy of the people.”
Japan is well acquainted with Chinese anger: The first boycott of Japanese products was in 1915 after publication of the Twenty One Demands. Another boycott was launched in 1919 and again in 1928. In recent years, there have been protests, demonstrations and calls for boycotts when the dispute over the Senkaku Islands has flared up or when senior political figures visited Yasukuni Shrine. This summer, Pocari Sweat became a target of protests after it pulled ads from a Hong Kong TV station that was accused of misreporting the protests in the city.
Recent protests against Japan — except when sanctioned by the Chinese government — have fizzled. That is because of a recognition in the power centers in China that they cannot afford to antagonize Japan. China needs a positive relationship with Japan. Boycotts will hurt China more than they will Japan. This may be a lesson for the NBA. There is no real substitute for it in China. Chinese basketball is not in the same league. Those hundreds of millions of spectators may well understand that Morey is just one voice and not the leading edge of a plot to undermine the country. They may well prefer a chance to watch a sport in peace and leisure instead of infusing it too with politics.