Controversy continued Tuesday to swirl in China around Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement as businesses and entertainers moved to cut ties with the National Basketball Association's U.S. franchise. But some analysts say the effort in China to rebuke the NBA could hurt the nation's fledgling basketball league as well.
More and more Chinese businesses on Tuesday followed the Chinese Basketball Association’s (CBA) lead to cut ties with the National Basketball Association team while its netizens continued to lash out their anger over NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s latest stance of backing Morey’s rights to speak up his mind.
A handful of entertainers, including nine members of the boy band UNINE, and actress Jinyan Wu, have also decided not to appear at NBA events in Shanghai on Wednesday and Thursday, citing their support for China’s territorial integrity.
The boycott is in apparent protest of comments by Silver, who said on Monday “I think as a value-based organization that I want to make it clear…that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
Silver also threw support behind Brooklyn Nets team owner Joe Tsai, who, in a Facebook post, weighed in to explain the historical context of why Chinese basketball fans were upset with Morey’s now-deleted tweet.
Tsai called the tweet one of the ‘third-rail’ issues that will lead to political suicide. The NBA boss’s comments and attempts to cool the storm, however, continued to invite harsh criticism from Chinese netizens.
On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, one user responded to news reports on Silver’s comments by saying “without Yao Ming, the Rockets is [sic] nothing” while another user wrote “the hard-earned achievement [in China] has now been ruined by two dogs,” referring to Morey and Silver.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the party-backed tabloid Global Times, commented: “This is the result when sport enters political minefield…The more the US forces NBA to be politically correct, the narrower NBA’s path will be because Chinese fans & Chinese public won’t buy US political correctness.”
U.S. professional basketball, with its hundreds of millions of Chinese fans, is a multibillion dollar business in China, a fact that has compelled Morey and the NBA to issue written apologies over the tweet controversy.
But their effort to seek Chinese forgiveness has offended basketball fans outside of China, who denounced the NBA for choosing money over human rights.
Silver acknowledged that, no doubt, there’s an economic impact on the NBA’s brand in China.
But one analyst said that it will equally be China’s own losses if it continues to let the incident escalate into a people-to-people’s war or trigger a wider boycott of the world's premier basketball association.
China’s own CBA Basketball League is hardly a match for the NBA and the professional sport’s development there is reliant of foreign competition and collaboration.
“Actually, the quality of [CBA] Basketball League’s games is pretty bad. They are no comparison [to those of the NBA]. The NBA is a sport brand that has conquered the international market with a worldwide base of elite and wealthy fans who have a better understanding of American culture,” said Emmy Hu, a China watcher, who used to work for Alibaba as a business editor.
In China, almost all professional sports are controlled by political factions under the Communist Party of China, which has instilled a repressive ideology and culture to stifle the private sector’s commercial competitiveness and creativity among its vast pool of talent, according to Hu.
“For example, among the talent in sports, China has Yao Ming [who chairs the CBA]. But Yao Ming is who he is today because of his experience with the Rockets team. If he had remained in China, he wouldn’t have been today’s Yao Ming. [China’s] authoritative regime has suppressed the strength of its talent in every aspect,” Hu said.
She added that the controversy has turned into what she called a people-to-people’s war or serious clashes between Chinese and American values, culture and their own people.
Yao was an all-star player for the Houston Rockets basketball franchise from 2002 and 2011, which helped boost the team’s popularity in China.
The controversy may have hurt the NBA in the short run. But, in the long run, it may end up hurting the overall basketball market in China if local fans remain politicized and continue to blow the controversy out of proportion.
The controversy is one of the latest examples that highlights the political tightrope foreign businesses operating in China are treading.
Taiwanese businesses Yifang fruit tea brand and the bakery and coffee chain 85°C have issued apologies over incidents deemed politically incorrect in the eyes of their Chinese consumers.
Meanwhile, the creators of the American adult animated television sitcom South Park tweeted a mocking apology on Tuesday, taking shots at the NBA for kowtowing to China and the Chinese government’s censorship.
“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all! Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?”
The show was already made largely unavailable in China.