LOS ANGELES - This week China again demonstrated the pitfalls for American companies trying to do business there, when an NBA general manager's tweet in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters became an international news story and sparked a backlash in China.
Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets posted a tweet in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, before later deleting it and apologizing as it became clear how upset main NBA fans in mainland China were over his tweet.
"If the NBA wants a piece of the Chinese market, then it needs to understand China's culture and understand our country's bottom line," 18-year-old Li Xintong told Reuters while waiting for the arrival of the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai for an exhibition game on October 10.
The response in China to Morey's tweet included removing NBA logos, and Chinese sponsors suspending their relationship with the NBA.
China's massive economic market has long forced western companies to tread carefully when it comes to politically sensitive topics. But China scholars said the timing of the NBA social media post supporting Hong Kong during a sensitive time in China motivated its tough response.
"With the 70th anniversary (of China) it's more sensitive. I think with the tensions between China and the United States, it's a lot more sensitive. With the protests in Hong Kong, it's a lot more sensitive. Most of the time this would not have been a major issue, but the world is looking at these things differently, and China's looking at it differently," said Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Center for Regional Economics at the Milken Institute.
The Rockets' general manager apologized on social media saying … "I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives."
American backlash to the backlash?
But unlike in previous cases, where U.S. companies' attempts to soothe Chinese audiences went largely unnoticed by the American public, the NBA's apology led to push back from American lawmakers and fans to stand up to Beijing.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver later made another statement defending the free expression that has become part of the NBA brand. "The long held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and certainly freedoms of expression by the NBA community, and in this case Daryl Morey as the General Manager of the Houston Rockets enjoys that right as one of our employees."
Klowden said it is always a challenge for businesses to navigate between the censorship in China and democratic values of the U.S.
"If you're a company the last thing you want to do is to be stuck between these two giant economies, and then if you are, you have to play a very delicate balancing act in order to not offend either party and keep yourself intact," Klowden said.
Hollywood watches closely
The NBA is not the only business that is trying not to offend China. Hollywood has also been careful, with the types of movies it has been making to positively portray China and not to include certain topics.
"The most obvious ones have always been the three Ts: Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square of 1989, but anything that deals with sovereignty issues," said Stanley Rosen, University of Southern California political science and international relations professor. "More and more some people suggest that China's expanding, that anything China doesn't like you shouldn't do."
"Certainly you never want to offend your customers, but at the same time to have Chinese ideas, Chinese government ideas, and the ideas held by many people in China, to have those orchestrate what you say generally that's problematic," said Clayton Dube, director of the U.S. China Institute at the University of Southern California.
The creators of the U.S. television show South Park, a cartoon that mocks sensitive topics, dedicated a show to the entertainment industry's self-censorship for China. When Beijing responded by banning the show in China, the response was a sarcastic apology from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the show.
They wrote, "Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy."
From South Park to the NBA, China's response is having some unintended consequences.
"The image of China is taking a beating all over the world as a result of this. It's calling attention," Rosen said.
He said the extensive media coverage is calling attention to China's influence of U.S. businesses and the Hong Kong protests.
"Most people don't know about Hong Kong and really haven't paid that much attention to it. But now with this NBA it becomes part of the NBA. Then you pay attention to it. And as people learn more, you're going to have people saying "well wait a second, maybe people in Hong Kong have a point," Rosen said.