The National Basketball Association (NBA) came under fire yesterday for its response to a tweet by a Houston Rockets official in support of Hong Kong protests for democracy, the latest overseas business to run afoul of political issues in China.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey yesterday apologized for the tweet he had swiftly deleted, but his support for the protests angered Beijing, Chinese fans and the team’s partners in a key NBA market.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey tweeted yesterday.
Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY
“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” he said, adding that he had since heard and considered other perspectives.
The Rockets are widely followed in China, partly because in 2002 they drafted Yao Ming (姚明), who became a star.
Morey’s initial tweet included an image captioned: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”
It prompted sportswear brand Li-Ning and sponsor Shanghai Pudong Development Bank Credit Card Center to suspend work with the Rockets, while the team’s games were dropped by China Central Television.
The post was later deleted and 47-year-old Morey, the NBA’s executive of the year last year, said his views did not represent the team or league.
A separate statement from NBA chief communications officer Mike Bass said “we recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
However, the Chinese-language version issued by the NBA on Sina Weibo appeared to go further than the English statement, saying: “We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate remarks made by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey,” which “severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.”
US lawmakers said the NBA’s response was shameful and showed how China was using its economic power to censor speech by Americans in the US.
“As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, said on Twitter. “Now, in pursuit of $$, the @NBA is shamefully retreating.”
Other legislators accused the NBA of a double standard when it comes to China.
NBA stars and some coaches have been outspoken in their criticism of US President Donald Trump, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver has urged players to speak out on issues of concern, including questions of police brutality and gun violence.
The furor is the latest example of an overseas brand caught in controversy over the Hong Kong protests. Many Western brands have been forced to clarify positions on Chinese sovereignty as the Hong Kong protests fuel nationalist fervor.
Taipei-born Joe Tsai (蔡崇信), owner of the Brooklyn Nets and cofounder of Alibaba Group Holding, said freedom of expression does not extend to issues China deems untouchable, and the damage from Morey’s tweet “will take a long time to repair.”
While acknowledging the tradition of free speech in the US, Tsai wrote on Facebook: “The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.”
“Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China,” he wrote.
Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin (胡錫進) yesterday tweeted that Morey “has the right to express his values, and Chinese fans of the Houston Rockets have the right to abandon this team. If the Rockets want to keep its Chinese market, the team need to avoid offending Chinese public.”
Additional reporting by AP and AFP