NBA team faces backlash from China after pro-democracy message
BEIJING - After Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters on Friday, the National Basketball Association franchise found itself engulfed in a backlash from seething Chinese fans and faced cries for a boycott.
Forty-eight hours later, China’s state broadcaster said it would not show games of what had been one of China’s most beloved sports teams. Corporate sponsors peeled away. The Chinese Basketball Association - headed by former Rockets star Yao Ming - also cut ties.
Practically overnight, the Rockets were grounded by an increasingly powerful force in global business: Chinese nationalism.
As China’s economic clout expands, its government and consumers are coercing international companies and punishing speech they deem critical, adding a growing element of unpredictability for foreign executives weighing the opportunities and risks of doing business in the country.
With the politically charged trade war with the United States grinding on and the Chinese economy cooling off, the latest NBA controversy was a reminder that many foreign executives say the country of 400 million middle-class consumers is more a minefield than a gold mine.
“The political risk is so high right now it doesn’t make sense to keep investing in China. If you’re not already here, you have to think three, four, five times harder about whether it’s worth coming,” said Shaun Rein, the Shanghai-based founder of the China Market Research Group who has advised clients such as Apple, Samsung, Fidelity Investments and luxury group Richemont.
Rein, an author known in China for his pro-Beijing views and support for hard-line President Xi Jinping, said the political atmosphere had become so charged that even he is advising companies to leave. “It’s killing my business, frankly,” he said, “but you can’t put all your eggs in this basket anymore.”
The Rockets controversy laid bare some of the widening rifts between China and the West, not just in trade but in deeply held political views. The outpouring of anger over the weekend appeared to be genuine in a country where many Chinese, some of whom are guided by a steady stream of state propaganda, view the Hong Kong protests as a violent movement orchestrated by the United States to cleave away Chinese territory.
So when Morey retweeted an image with the words “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” on Friday night, days before the NBA was scheduled to hold preseason games in China, Chinese social media exploded.
Many users compared Morey’s remarks to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling using racist language and demanded that the league remove Morey like it did Sterling.
The league, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and Morey quickly apologized, but that didn’t stop the Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning, a major Shanghai bank and an electronics maker from suspending ties with the team. Brooklyn Nets co-owner Joe Tsai criticized Morey as “not being as well-informed as he should’ve been,” and Tsai’s company, the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, removed Rockets items from its vast online platform.
Meanwhile, the influential state broadcaster, CCTV, demanded that Morey apologize and warned: “Double-faced behavior attempting to make money from China while hurting the feelings of Chinese people will not work and is doomed to pay a price!”
But in Washington, lawmakers from both parties, including Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Ted Cruz, R-Texas; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., immediately backed Morey’s right to free speech and criticized what they called “unacceptable” Chinese efforts to silence him.