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.