China’s state press and internet were notably lacking in fresh attacks on the NBA Friday, in a possible sign that authorities were working to de-escalate a bitter political row.
The American basketball league suffered a ferocious backlash after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests on Twitter.
But after adoring fans cheered on the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in a Shanghai exhibition game Thursday night, China’s censors and propaganda machine avoided further inflaming the issue.
In contrast to days leading up to the pre-season game, when state media editorials ripped into the NBA for interfering in Chinese affairs, the government-controlled press barely mentioned the issue Friday.
For the first time in several days, none of the top-trending items on dominant social media platform Weibo were centered around attacks on the league.
China’s internet is heavily censored, and the ruling Communist Party directs social media outlets to block or downplay content it does not like.
Beijing allows citizens to vent online when it serves party interests, with state press often leading the charge, but the party deeply fears social instability and abruptly puts the lid on hot topics that threaten to boil over.
Hu Xijin, top editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, said both sides now want to cool the feud down, according to the New York Times.
“I think this issue will gradually de-escalate — Global Times will not push to keep it hot,” Hu said in response to the paper’s request for comment.
“I also hope the American side won’t make any moves to escalate it.”
China reacts fiercely to any questioning of its sovereignty over semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which has endured months of protests demanding democratic freedoms.
Thursday’s game was not aired in China after local broadcasters boycotted it to protest Morey’s comments and the NBA’s support for his freedom of expression.
The fracas posed a particular dilemma for authorities after outraged social media users began lashing out at Chinese fans as “traitors,” threatening to split national opinion.
The NBA, which has a huge fanbase in China, has been caught between the Chinese anger and U.S. politicians, who accused the league of failing to more forcefully push back against Beijing in order to protect its business interests.
The league has clearly sought to avoid inflaming the issue, cancelling a series of scheduled publicity events in Shanghai without explanation.
Normally outspoken players like Lakers superstar LeBron James have brushed past reporters without comment while in China.
The Lakers and Nets travel to the southern city of Shenzhen Friday for their second of two promotional games, set for Saturday.