In an extraordinary twist to the seemingly never-ending protests in Hong Kong, The American National Basketball Association (NBA) has been financially punished by China in retaliation for activism supporting the protest movement. On October 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a now-deleted tweet saying ‘FIGHT FOR FREEDOM STAND WITH HONG KONG’. In response, China’s state broadcaster CCTV suspended broadcast of all NBA games, and large firms Vivo and Tencent pulled sponsorship deals and cooperation. The Houston Rockets were also completely blacklisted. With the NBA in China being worth an estimated $4 billion USD and having over 500 million fans, the spat threatens to haemorrhage the bottom line of the NBA.
As for assessing the real damage incurred to the League, commissioner Adam Silver remarked that the financial ramifications were “dramatic” and that losses already incurred were “substantial”. On the 6th of October, the Chinese Consulate in Houston “expressed strong dissatisfaction” and the Chinese Basketball Association, chaired by former Rockets player Yao Ming said the tweets were “improper remarks”. While Silver said that Morey’s tweet was “regrettable”, in an official statement released on the 8th he reaffirmed NBA values of “equality, respect, and freedom of expression”. On the 17th Silver accused the Chinese government of asking him to fire Morey, to which the Chinese denied. According to The Ringer, NBA sources claim that Morey’s employment status was called into question immediately after the tweet.
To many, the stoush represents yet another example of a Chinese attempt to coerce foreign companies to reflect their core political interests. China has been known to ardently assert it’s national sovereignty, especially over issues like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. Only earlier this year, Christian Dior publicly apologized for classifying Taiwan as an independent nation after a Chinese boycott of the brand. The NBA has a proud history of social justice, as seen with its support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is no surprise that the Hong Kong issue has ascended into the League in the context of extensive American media coverage of the protests. Sports in the past have bridged the gap between states and transcended politics. This was the case in the 1970s of the Cold War, as Sino-American relations were normalized through sports or ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy. However, the current dispute demonstrates a failure of the diplomatic benefits of sport, showing how far relations between the U.S. and China have deteriorated in the recent decade.
The dispute comes after nearly half a year of massive protest and chaos in Hong Kong. These protests, originally in opposition to an Extradition Bill have snowballed and escalated even after the bill was suspended. The decentralized movement now demands the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, an investigation into police actions, Universal Suffrage in Legislative and Executive elections and amnesty for arrested protesters. While the protests have continued unabated, China has enhanced its garrison in the city and threatened to crush it using force. China has accused liberal Western states, including the US of pushing a propaganda campaign to sow instability in Chinese society.
While Tencent has since resumed streaming of NBA games, it’s clear the spat has done permanent damage to the NBA’s reputation in China. To more hawkish elements in the U.S., the dispute has been another indicator of the supposed revisionist intentions of the Chinese Communist Party. The coordinated treatment of the NBA by China and Chinese firms has demonstrated how beholden they are to Communist Party directives. According to John Lee of the South China Morning Post, this dispute will make it harder for the US and the West to accept that Huawei is indeed independent of the Chinese government, and not a security threat. The new development of the Hong Kong NBA dispute has far-reaching consequences and does not make ongoing negotiations for a US-China trade deal any easier.
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