Chinese organisers on Wednesday cancelled a fan event on the eve of a planned National Basketball Association (NBA) exhibition game in Shanghai, part of an escalating row over a team official who supported protests in Hong Kong.
On Wednesday afternoon, a press conference with the two teams was delayed indefinitely, organisers said, and a Reuters witness saw workers tearing down giant banners advertising the exhibition game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets.
Sponsors and partners had already cut ties with the NBA after a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey last week supported anti-government protests in the Chinese-ruled city, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver backed his right to free speech.
The threats began when China’s state-run television announced it would not broadcast two NBA preseason games this week in Shanghai and Shenzhen that would feature basketball’s biggest star, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Hours later, the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, issued an emphatic defense of its employees’ right to speak out on political issues.
That followed days of intense criticism accusing Silver of trying to appease one of the world’s most autocratic governments after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. “We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech,” Silver said.
The NBA has made global expansion — particularly into China — a core part of its mission. The preseason games are part of a set of events designed to promote the league in the country — including basketball clinics, fan gatherings and various public appearances by players.
But the league’s Chinese campaign has been overshadowed by the single pro-Hong Kong tweet on Friday night from Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, who shared an image that contained the words “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The phrase is a popular slogan at the protests in Hong Kong that have raged for months.
The tweet put the league in a situation familiar to many other global companies seeking to do business in the communist country with 1.4 billion people: Any misstep could mean swiftly losing access to a powerful economy.
China Central Television, the state broadcaster, made clear the risks of challenging Beijing, chiding the league for an earlier expression of support for Morey’s free speech rights.
“We voice our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Adam Silver offering as an excuse the right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said in its statement announcing the cancellation of the NBA broadcasts. “We believe that no comments challenging national sovereignty and social stability fall within the scope of freedom of expression.”
Adam Silver has released statement on league’s relationship status with China, reading in part: “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.” pic.twitter.com/A43BOAdG57
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) October 8, 2019
At a news conference in Japan — where the Rockets played the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday — Silver said the broadcast cancellation was unexpected, and that a community outreach event scheduled to take place at a school in Shanghai had also been canceled.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Silver said. “But if that’s the consequences of us adhering to our values, we still feel it’s critically important we adhere to those values.”
Silver planned to travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and said he hoped to meet with Chinese government officials to try to defuse the conflict.
“But I’m a realist as well, and I recognize that this issue may not die down so quickly,” Silver said.
Both Democrats and Republicans have castigated the league for its initial reaction to the situation: a statement Sunday that said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet had offended people in China. The NBA also said that “the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them.”
Silver responded again Tuesday morning, with a statement that said in part: “It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
It continued, “However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”
Despite the controversy, as of Tuesday, the preseason games had not been canceled, even though they would not be broadcast in China. The Lakers were scheduled to play the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joe Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. In a lengthy Facebook post this week, Tsai criticized Morey’s tweet as damaging to the NBA in China. Also, an editorial in the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, carried the headline: “Sports loses out when politics enters play.”
Chinese government and basketball officials, as well as Chinese companies had pressured the NBA to be more critical of Morey and to go beyond a version of the league’s statement that appeared on Chinese social media platforms Sunday. In that statement, the league appeared to call Morey’s tweet “inappropriate.” (The league denied the difference in translation was intentional and said the English version should be considered its official response).
Multiple Chinese companies, including Luckin Coffee, a coffee chain, and Anta, a sportswear brand that sponsors NBA players, announced Tuesday that they were suspending partnerships with the league.
“The NBA has been in cooperation with China for many years,” Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a briefing Tuesday. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”
Criticism of the NBA also has come from pro-Hong Kong activists and their supporters in the United States, who have accused Silver of capitulating to an authoritarian government.
Silver, in an interview with CNN after his news conference Tuesday, hinted at frustration over the way the league’s actions have been received.
“I will say I’m a bit surprised that CCTV canceled the telecasting of preseason games and specifically named me as the cause,” Silver said. “It’s interesting, while at the same time in the U.S. media, there is some suggesting I am not being protective enough of our employees. Clearly, they’re seeing it the other way in China, but I think, at the end of the day, we have been pretty consistent.”