Once again, the NBA is at the center of an international diplomatic controversy. As has been covered everywhere, including this site, Hong Kong has been enduring months of ever larger and increasingly violence-filled protests, as demonstrators have confronted government forces over measures that they see as eroding Hong Kong’s democracy since the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997. What started out as a protest against a specific extradition bill (one that potentially threatened to hand over political dissidents and rebellious church officials to Chinese authorities) has snowballed (partially because of the government’s heavy-handed response) into a general revolt against the Chinese-backed local government.
This has in turn made officials in Beijing quite unhappy: the 70 year old People’s Republic of China does not tend to tolerate protest – remember Tiananmen Square? (**Chinese population, with state authorities looking over their shoulders: “No.”**) Yet, because of the “one country, two systems” model they’ve adopted with Hong Kong (“hey Hong Kong, you get to hold on to your democracy, for a while at least”), China can’t simply go in and stamp out the protests as they would in the mainland portion of the country. So they would instead like for the world to simply not pay attention to the demonstrations. (At least one world leader is on board with that plan: China’s apparently gotten US President Trump to agree to more or less ignore what’s going on in Hong Kong as part of negotiations on that crazy trade war).
For Chinese citizens, some distraction may be useful to turn attention away from their Hong Kong neighbors, and basketball is a nice one. Basketball has been growing in popularity in China for a while now, with many high profile players going back and forth between American and Chinese leagues – Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Jeremy Lin, and so on.
Much of this popularity was a result of Chinese basketball phenomenon Yao Ming, who went from the Chinese Basketball Association’s Shanghai Sharks to being the top pick in the 2002 NBA draft, playing his All-Star American career with the Houston Rockets. Yao Ming’s impact on Chinese basketball and basketball fandom remains enormous; the former player is now both owner of the Shanghai Sharks and Chairman of the CBA, and the Rockets remain one of the most popular NBA teams in China (The Rockets have played at least 6 preseason or regular season games in China since 2004). That overseas popularity helped push the team’s value up to $2.2 billion dollars, the price paid by Tilman Fertitta in 2017 and the highest price ever paid for an NBA team.
That popularity in China may have just changed, quite rapidly, due to one fairly innocuous Tweet and a typically heavy-handed response from the Chinese government. First, the Tweet: Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message on Friday night: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Pretty tame, one might think. Not accusing the Chinese government of being evil (or directly mentioning it at all), and supporting freedom – we all still like freedom, right?
Well, maybe not Houston Rockets owner Fertitta, who publicly distanced himself, the team and the NBA from Morey’s tweets and apologized for his GM, remind everyone that the Rockets are “NOT a political organization.” He also seems to have gotten to Morey, who deleted the Tweet and apologized shortly thereafter. It initially seemed as if the Fertitta was overreacting to a pretty mild political statement (not to mention being fairly hypocritical, as Deadspin pointed out, given the many ways in which Fertitta has been quite vocal for conservative causes in the US). It turned out, however, that he may have just been paying attention to China and realizing that, for the Chinese Communist Party, “innocuous criticism” is an oxymoron.
Remember that foul-mouthed scene in Goodfellas (NSFW, of course) where Tommy flips out over a random remark about him being funny? That’s basically what China did, except without the ‘nah, I’m just kidding’ part at the end (the CCP does not joke). China has flipped the fork out over the Tweet, essentially banning the entire Houston Rockets from China. The CBA (chaired by former Rocket Yao Ming, remember) has suspended cooperation with the Rockets. Television stations have announced that they will no longer broadcast Rockets games in China. Taking four steps before shooting and jumping into defender to draw fouls has been banned from Chinese basketball (sorry, that last part isn’t true; it’s just a dig at James Harden; seriously NBA referees, “that’s a travel.”) The Rockets are being pilloried, or potentially erased, in China.
Ironically, all this brouhaha over given to Morey’s Tweet is only likely to bring even more attention to the protests in Hong Kong and China’s role in the turmoil. But China seems to have wanted to deliver a message. Not necessarily to its own citizens, whom it would prefer remain ignorant and inattentive to the whole situation (remember, China’s quite good at censoring information these days). Rather, with the Chinese market an increasingly lucrative market for American entertainment, this may have been a warning shot to any other American sports team, artist or movie studio not to say a word against the Chinese government or its policies, lest they suffer the same fate as the Rockets. And with the NBA all too willing to capitulate to the pressure, putting out an apologetic message that US politicians on both sides of the aisle have labeled as “shameful” and “disgraceful, China’s message appears to have gotten through to its intended audience, but may also create an even bigger backlash than the one it was facing before.