SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The National Basketball Association 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 apologised on Monday for the tweet, which he swiftly deleted over the weekend, but his support for protests in the Chinese-ruled city angered Beijing, Chinese fans and the team’s business 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.
“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 they drafted Yao Ming in 2002, who became a star for Houston and helped build the NBA’s following in China.
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 (SPD Bank) Credit Card Center to suspend work with the Rockets, while the team’s games were dropped by China’s state broadcaster.
The post was later deleted and Morey said his views did not represent the team or NBA.
In a separate statement, the NBA said it recognised Morey’s views have “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”
“We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together,” it said.
US lawmakers said the NBA response was shameful and showed how China was using its economic power to censor speech by Americans in the United States.
“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,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, said on Twitter. “Now, in pursuit of $$, the @NBA is shamefully retreating.”
Other legislators accused the NBA, no stranger to American politics, 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 encouraged players to speak out on issues of concern, including questions of police brutality and gun violence.
“And the #NBA, which (correctly) has no problem with players/employees criticizing our gov’t, is now apologizing for criticizing the Chinese gov’t. This is shameful and cannot stand,” New Jersey Congressman Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, said in a tweet.
The Rockets are in Japan for a preseason exhibition against the Toronto Raptors. Star player James Harden said after a practice on Monday the controversy had not affected the players.
The furore is another example of an overseas business caught in the politics of the Hong Kong protests, which have plunged the city into its worst political crisis in decades and pose a major challenge to Beijing.
Amazon.com faced a backlash in August after Chinese social media users found T-shirts on its website with slogans supporting the protests.
Chinese internet users also blacklisted bubble tea brands from Taiwan after a Hong Kong franchise urged solidarity with protesters.
Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets and co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd (BABA.N), said the damage from Morey’s tweet “will take a long time to repair.”
On Sunday, Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning also condemned Morey’s initial tweet. “We have already stopped our cooperation with the Houston Rockets, and continue to urge them to give a clear answer on this matter,” it said on the Weibo platform.
China’s SPD Bank suspended marketing activities and publicity with the NBA team, and state broadcaster CCTV’s sports channel said it would halt any further broadcasts of Rockets’ games.
China’s consulate in Houston also issued a statement saying it “made stern representations to the Rockets and requested them to clarify, to immediately correct any mistakes, and to eliminate any negative influences.”
The Chinese Basketball Association, chaired by former Rockets star Yao, said it was suspending “exchanges and cooperation” with the team.
Fans in China expressed their anger on social media, with some calling for a boycott of the Rockets.
“I watched the Rockets for 21 years, but I’m still a Chinese person first and foremost,” one user said.