What Just Happened with the NBA in China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On Friday, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted—and then quickly deleted—a post supporting the protests in Hong Kong.

The tweet generated an immediate outcry. The Chinese Basketball Association announced it was suspending cooperation with the Rockets. The NBA issued a statement in English supporting freedom of expression, and a statement in Chinese condemning Morey. And Joseph Tsai, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets and a cofounder of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, posted an open letter on Facebook claiming the tweet “is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China” and that “the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

The NBA has a large and profitable presence on the mainland, and the Houston Rockets is one of the most popular teams in China; in 2002 it drafted Yao Ming, the first Chinese superstar player. And while Adam Silver released a statement on Tuesday stating he still supports freedom of speech, on Thursday the NBA refused to allow a CNN journalist to ask a question about the incident.

What happened? And what does this situation mean for American businesses and China? —The Editors


How could a seven-word tweet from an American sports executive spark more moral outrage on both sides of the Pacific than any other issue in U.S.-China relations? In any normal universe, Daryl Morey’s tweet would have vanished into the ether. But the force field that grips U.S.-China relations these days is hardly normal, with a bullying hypersensitivity on one side, a bipartisan backlash on the other, and a growing number of businesses caught in the middle. When the business in question is the NBA, a global sports brand with a huge fan base in both countries, the chain reaction of accusations and retractions, apologies and recriminations seems more, not less, politically charged.

In China, sports has always been about more than athletic competition; it is politics by other means. From the Ping-Pong Diplomacy that eased U.S.-China tensions in the 1970s to Beijing’s triumphant hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games, sporting events have often served to bring China more deeply into the international fold. Yao Ming’s arrival in Houston in 2002 as the NBA’s top draft pick had a similar effect. The affable 7’6” center not only embodied China’s growing global stature; he was heralded as a cultural and corporate bridge between the U.S. and China.

The current firestorm, however, is sports diplomacy in reverse. That it originated with the Houston Rockets—and one of Yao’s former general managers—only deepens the irony. Morey deleted his tweet and apologized, and the NBA put out a cowering statement, in Chinese, that criticized him. Even so, that single tweet sent the fragile superpower into full grievance mode. The Chinese Consulate in Houston said it was “deeply shocked.” The NBA’s Chinese partners, in lockstep, severed ties with the league. Social media swarmed with posts attacking Morey with the insult “nmsl,” or “your mother died.” (Many of these posts, it seems, came from bots.) Yao has stayed silent. But the Chinese Basketball Association, which he now leads, felt compelled to cut ties with the Rockets, the team he made famous in China.

The world has gotten used to China’s wounded feelings. What’s new this time is the bipartisan blowback in the U.S. itself. Across the political spectrum, Americans raged not only at China’s efforts to silence a U.S. citizen—on a platform, moreover, that is banned in China. They also excoriated the supposedly “woke” NBA for kowtowing to Beijing and putting profits ahead of principles. Shouldn’t a unique global brand with 600 million fans in China have the leverage—or at least the courage—to stand up to censorship?

The criticism must have stung. On Tuesday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver affirmed the league’s core values of “equality, respect and freedom of expression.” He didn’t sound ready to apologize. Hours later, China state television cancelled broadcasts of NBA preseason games in China. Silver still plans to travel to China this week. It will be fascinating to see if any sports diplomacy begins—or if this is the game, and the tweet, that drives us apart.

So, here we are, the latest in an increasingly long list of outrage-inducing faux pas by non-Chinese companies. This case involves an American citizen, not in China, using an American social media platform to express a personal opinion, which he has been forced to disavow because it did not accord with Chinese netizens’ own opinion, which precipitated a pile-on from Chinese corporations, media, and, to a lesser extent, the government.

Given the significance of the Chinese market to the NBA/Rockets, this retraction/disavowal/apology was inevitable. Doing business in China requires acquiescence or acceptance of certain “facts” and narratives. One must avoid “challeng[ing] China’s core interests and hurt[ing] Chinese people’s feelings.” Contravene these conditions and get discovered, and one must pay.

China knows what motivates corporations and understands the power of its market to create leverage. The domestic version of this kind of corporate co-optation is obvious in every company in China. A corporation is driven by its bottom line, and one shouldn’t expect it to behave otherwise (even the NBA, which frames itself as “woke”).

The broader picture is a concern. The Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai wrote in an open letter that Morey “was not as well informed as he should have been,” i.e., he voiced his own opinion instead of the “correct,” Chinese, position. “Informed” in this definition is obvious doublespeak. Had Morey made an objectively uninformed statement like “Hong Kong rioters, under the guidance of foreign black hands, are seeking to undermine Chinese sovereignty,” would he have received opprobrium in China?

Yes, there is much ignorance about China in the West, and Chinese frustrations with this lack of understanding are often merited. Anyone who has read about Western imperialist aggression or the Japanese occupation will have only sympathy for the historical wrongs done to China. But at what point does a backward-looking “100 years of shame” mentality become a liability? China is now a global superpower, and yet these historical wrongs are always there, reanimated and spilling over every time a company or individual says something “uninformed.”

As for the West, it has never before been in a situation where a country has the power and motivation to affect how institutions and individuals speak about it. It isn’t just companies doing business in China that have to modify their and their employees’ behavior. Every sector that deals with Chinese consumers will be motivated to self-censor to avoid offending with “uniformed” opinions that hurt the bottom line. (Maybe even university lecturers face this pressure, for fear of offending their Chinese students and triggering a Rockets-type “cancellation.”)

Until now, most companies involved in these various faux pas have apologized. Will companies begin to take a stand and refuse the “make our money/take our rules” equation? I doubt it, unless companies at home or in other important markets face a backlash-to-the-response-to-backlash. Could that happen? Maybe. But it would surprise me if there would ever be such a massive and unified response as China can muster.

There is an expression in Chinese, “To point at a deer and call it a horse” (指鹿为马, zhiluweima). It derives from an ancient incident where Gao Zhao, the son of unified China’s first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, brought a deer onto the palace grounds and called it a horse to test which of his officials would be disobedient enough to correct him. All agreed it was a horse.

Somehow I doubt the NBA will be as successful in convincing its minions to toe China’s Party line on Hong Kong.

Sports leagues and other businesses getting into trouble over political issues is nothing new. In the U.S., a business that is perceived to be anti-same-sex-marriage or pro-Trump, for example, can upset some customers and lead to calls for boycott. In those cases, whether to boycott a company for political reasons is entirely up to individual customers. The Chinese government shutting out the NBA because of a casual but politically unacceptable tweet, however, is different. In this case, it is not the individual Chinese customer’s decision to boycott the NBA. Rather, it is the government of China that has pulled the plug on the NBA in the country. It is not a consumer boycott; it is government censorship and bullying.

China is a big market, and Beijing controls the access of foreign companies to that market. The Chinese government has been taking advantage of this control to enact revenge on foreign companies’ employees for words and actions it doesn’t like, even though these words and actions have been said or done outside China. This episode is a perfect example. Chinese audiences are not supposed to be able to access Daryl Morey’s tweet, because Beijing banned Twitter. This NBA case shows the global expansion of Chinese censorship. The creators of South Park, who sarcastically apologized after Beijing banned its latest episode on China, said it very well: “like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts.”

The Chinese government has done this many times before. Just last January, Beijing temporarily took down Marriott’s website in China, because it listed Taiwan and Tibet separately from China in an online survey. Several months later, the Chinese government threatened U.S. Airlines, demanding they stop listing Taiwan as a separate place from China or face the consequences. More recently, Beijing pressured Cathay Pacific to fire employees seen as sympathetic to Hong Kong protests. These companies all complied.

For airlines and hotel chains, such compromises barely hurt their business. It may not be the case for the NBA. The NBA sells not just a product, but an attitude. The NBA is the king of cool among major professional sports leagues. If the NBA lets the Chinese government push them around over this small tweet, they will suddenly look like uncool teacher’s pets or timid yes-men.

We have entered a new era, when the Chinese government not only tells us what to do when we are in China but also tries to shape who we are outside of China. This NBA episode is a moment of reckoning. We have to make up our minds about how much more of this we can swallow.

Foreign businesses have been groveling and self-censoring to maintain access to China for a long time. The recent NBA incident is different from previous instances only in that it’s an exceptionally high profile business beloved by millions of Americans and Chinese. The Morey fiasco is simply forcing Americans to suddenly reckon with a longstanding state of affairs.

In Asia, meanwhile, the way in which the Chinese market influences business and entertainment is quite well understood. Anyone who follows pan-Asian popular culture can remember at least one instance of China throwing a fit over a perceived slight and getting its way. Two recent examples come to mind. In 2016, the Taiwanese K-pop star Chou Tzu-yu of the girl group TWICE waved the Taiwan flag on a Korean broadcast. Chinese fans flipped out and the Chinese government immediately barred TWICE from performing in China. In order to get back in China’s good graces, TWICE's label JYP Entertainment not only issued a groveling apology, but forced the then 16-year-old Chou to film a video apology in which she affirmed “there is only one China.” (Chou’s apology may actually have helped propel current Taiwan President Tsai Ying-wen to victory on a wave of anti-China sentiment spurred by what many Taiwanese felt was a humiliating incident.)

A second incident also involved Taiwan. Last year, Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards became tense after the Taiwanese documentary filmmaker Fu Yue advocated for Taiwan independence while accepting an award for her documentary about the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Offended, mainland diva Gong Li declined to present an award she had been scheduled to present, and the usual nationalistic outpouring on Chinese social media ensued. Beijing has since ordered mainland stars and directors to boycott the Golden Horse, and there are unconfirmed reports that any films participating in Golden Horse will not be approved for release in China. In September, the famed Hong Kong director Johnnie To resigned as Golden Horse awards jury president under pressure.

With pop music, film, or basketball, China is more than ready to exercise its considerable influence to make foreign companies kowtow. Those companies will now have to decide whether betting on the Chinese market is really worth it.