A single tweet from an NBA team manager that showed support for pro-democracy Hong Kongers has tripped the wire for China authorities. They are feeling the pressure from the outside world in many areas, be it human rights, trade practices, fake foods—you name it, and the spotlight is on them.
With an estimated 300 million of their citizens playing basketball, a tweet from an NBA star in the Western world supporting freedom of speech against the Chinese regime has not gone unnoticed.
The NBA is facing a test—the harsh realities of business stacked up against basic principles it believes in. Can they walk the walk?
General manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, set off a firestorm of anger from China, when he tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters on Oct. 4, supporting free speech.
Morey tweeted, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” in support of the pro-democracy demonstrations that have been ongoing since June. What began there as peaceful protests have escalated into violent confrontations between demonstrators and police.
After the backlash from China, Morey deleted his tweet, announcing that his opinion was not necessarily that of the Houston Rockets nor the NBA.
2/ I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors have provided and I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention. My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA.
— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) October 7, 2019
The Rockets and the NBA suffered a knee-jerk reaction at first and tried to put some air between themselves and Morey’s tweet.
“We apologize,” Rockets star James Harden said in Japan on Monday. “We love China. We love playing there. I know for both of us individually we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. So we appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as an organization.”
By contrast, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced his support of free speech, defending Morey’s right to speak freely.
State-run China Central Television didn’t see it the same way and lashed out by immediately cutting all NBA preseason broadcasts into China.
“We’re strongly dissatisfied and oppose Adam Silver’s claim to support Morey’s right to freedom of expression,” CCTV said in a statement. “We believe that any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech,” reports ABC News.
Silver spoke with reporters on Tuesday in Tokyo before a preseason game between the Rockets and the NBA champion Toronto Raptors, “I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear … that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression.”
Silver said, “Daryl Morey, as general manager of the Houston Rockets, enjoys that right as one of our employees,” adding, “What I also tried to suggest is that I understand there are consequences from his freedom of speech and we will have to live with those consequences.”
Silver is planning to visit Shanghai this week, in the hope of finding common ground to settle the dispute.
“I’m sympathetic to our interests here and our partners that are upset,” Silver said. “I don’t think it’s inconsistent on one hand to be sympathetic to them and at the same time, stand by our principles.”
“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” Silver said. “I regret — again, having communicated directly with many friends in China — that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans. At the end of the day, we come with basketball as an opportunity to sell dreams, sell hopes, that we are causing disruption in people’s lives and that we are causing disharmony. That’s something I regret.”
The NBA has a lot at stake in China. It is BIG business.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News in an interview Monday. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”
Meanwhile, the spat is raising awareness of the human rights abuse that China has been trying to cover up for decades.
There is now irrefutable evidence the Chinese government is murdering spiritual followers of Falun Gong and other prisoners of conscience for their organs. It was presented at the United Nations in Geneva on Sept. 24.
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