China Versus the NBA

Angie Jin

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On Friday, October 4th, the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the pro-democracy protests in the chaotic city. Hong Kong was governed by the British for 156 years. This ended on July 1, 1997, when the United Kingdom ended its administration of the colony of Hong Kong and returned control of the territory to China. As a result, Hong Kong became a special administrative region and continues to maintain governing and economic systems separate from those of mainland China. Over the last few years, residents of Hong Kong have become increasingly upset with the Chinese government limiting freedoms and rights they were guaranteed in 1997.  The most recent protests began when the Hong Kong government attempted to pass a law that would extradite residents to mainland China to face trial. Many in Hong Kong see the Chinese legal system as unjust and therefore protests began.

Although Morey deleted the tweet a couple of hours later and owner of the Houston Rockets disavowed it in his own tweet, it still managed to spread to the other side of the Pacific, and many people in China strongly disagreed with it. Sports are supposed to bridge gaps between cultures and bring people together. However in this case, the NBA is facing a nightmare.

Two days after Morey’s tweet on October 6th, the CBA (China Basketball Association) and CCTV (China Central Television) Sports Channel announced China’s suspension of cooperation with the Rockets and the broadcast of the team’s preseason games, which would affect at least 600 million Chinese fans. Then on October 14th,  in one of the CBA games between the Beijing Ducks and the Beijing Fly Drogen, which is also known as the Beijing Derby, a female fan of Beijing Ducks held a poster written in English, “If you have two days of watching the Beijing Ducks, you will love them.” The reason that the Ducks’ fan said this was in response to  an American tweet, “I give China two weeks of watching the Beijing Ducks before begging to have the NBA back.”

In addition, China’s Consulate General in Houston urged the team to correct what it viewed as a mistake immediately. Faced with an outcry from Chinese fans, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta “urgently clarified” that Morey’s tweet did not represent the view of the Houston Rockets, and he said that “the team has nothing to do with politics.” Rockets’ top star and former MVP James Harden also apologized. However, on October 9th, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver replied to the ongoing dispute saying “freedom of expression must be protected.” This remark, in defense of Morey’s controversial statement, made the relationship between the NBA and one of its largest fan bases go from bad to worse. As a result, all eleven of the NBA’s official partners in China have suspended ties with the NBA. The NBA stands to lose billions of dollars. 

 

The Rockets have enjoyed growing popularity in China in the last decade thanks to Yao Ming, the Rockets Number 1 pick in 2002 who spent his entire NBA career in Houston. As a result, the Rockets have benefited from numerous Chinese sponsors in the last 17 years, with Morey himself being one of the beneficiaries. His remarks irritated the majority of Chinese fans, some of whom have shown unceasing passion and devotion for the Rockets. According to the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily, “Hong Kong is a part of China. Chinese citizens stand united along the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.” When it comes to upholding the national identity or watching professional basketball, which one will the Rockets fans in China choose? The Chinese famous basketball commentator Yi Yang said, “we are all in this together, and no one should underestimate the determination of nearly 1.4 billion Chinese people in safeguarding the national sovereignty and dignity.”

According to Weiwei Zhang, a professor at Fudan University in China, freedom of speech is limited across the world. Each county is sensitive to certain topics regarding its history and cultures to some extent. As the People’s Daily responded, “Mr. Morey: if rioters set fire on Houston subway, will you stand with them?” 

Although Adam Silver has supported the idea of freedom of expression, the NBA is also concerned with the potential loss of revenue from the Chinese market that it has worked so long to build. In the late 1980s, the league began making inroads into China, by sending the CCTV games on videotape that it could air at no cost. By 1992, the league had opened an office in Hong Kong. Yao Ming entered the NBA as the Rockets Number 1 pick in 2002, and by 2004, the NBA was playing preseason games in China. Over the years, the NBA has made billion-dollar deals in China. However, today, billions of dollars for both sides and a strong four-decade-long relationship are in a standoff just because of one tweet.  Syracuse University professor John Wolohan, who specializes in sports law and US-China sports relations, told USA TODAY Sports. “If one of these sides is going to lose, it’s going to be the NBA.”

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