China is putting the NBA’s wokeness to the test

Chinese power.
Chinese power.
Image: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports/File Photo
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Americans are suddenly and swiftly waking up to the power of the Chinese consumer boycott, now that basketball is involved.

For years, brands all around the world have had to apologize when they’ve found themselves offending in China, whether by misrepresenting Taiwan as an independent country in an online drop-down menu or citing a persona non grata like Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in an ad campaign. Most of it has gone under the radar of American consumers, who have been largely oblivious to the way that China is able to censor free speech outside of its borders with the power of more than a billion wallets. Just over the weekend, California-based skate apparel brand Vans pulled a Hong Kong-protest-themed sneaker design from an online competition, largely seen as a move to avoid potential consequences in mainland China—that news barely registered in the US.

Now, China’s attempt to force businesses to toe Beijing’s ideological line has come to the NBA, after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed his support for Hong Kong’s protests in a now-deleted tweet on Friday (Oct. 4). The team’s owner Tilman Fertitta quickly distanced himself from the sentiment. Many eagerly awaited to see whether the team and the NBA would follow the long-established playbook of brands bowing down to China, especially given that the franchise is the most-followed sports league in China. The Rockets, in particular, have a long relationship with the country because Chinese player Yao Ming—now head of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA)—had played for the team.

The Hong Kong protests have been widely vilified in mainland China as a pro-independence movement marred by violent acts bordering on terrorism, rather than as a sustained series of protests against what many in the city see as Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s freedoms and worsening police brutality. A very small minority of people advocate for independence from China. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, co-founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, said in a Facebook post that Morey’s tweet was akin to supporting a “separatist movement,” invoking events in Chinese history such as the Opium Wars and Japan’s invasion of China to explain why the comments were so “damaging” to the NBA’s relationship with Chinese fans.

China’s punitive response came quickly and predictably. The CBA, state broadcaster CCTV, and other partners said they would end cooperation with the Rockets, while the Chinese consulate in Houston warned the team to “immediately correct any mistakes.” That further fueled speculation over whether the Rockets would go as far as to fire Morey in order to placate Chinese fans.

That hasn’t happened yet. However, Morey today (Oct. 6) put out a tweet that was short of an apology, explaining that he did not intend to offend people in China.

The NBA said in its English-language statement that Morey’s comments were “regrettable” and that they did not represent the views of the Rockets or the league, adding that it had “great respect” for China. Its Chinese-language statement, however, said it was “disappointed” by Morey’s views, and repeated the oft-used line that they had “greatly hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.”

There was swift rebuke against the NBA’s apparent cowing to China from all over the US, including many politicians—Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro tweeted that America shouldn’t be ‘bullied by an authoritarian government” and his opponent Andrew Yang called China’s punishment of the Rockets a “terrible move.” Wisconsin congressman Mike Gallagher said Morey’s willingness to speak up for Hong Kong was a “great embodiment of the [league’s] global social responsibility campaign.”

Gallagher’s statement hit at the heart of why so many are incensed at the NBA’s response. Its commissioner Adam Silver last year said he was “proud” of the league being hailed as a model of progressiveness and “wokeness” in American sport, allowing its players to protest against police brutality in the US without repercussion, for example.

The latest spat with China puts the NBA in a position where it must navigate between being woke, and being a sports franchise with a massive global following and huge ambitions in China. Most brands have chosen to buckle under Chinese pressure in the past—but the NBA has much more clout domestically and worldwide than a Vans or a Coach. How the NBA chooses to respond is arguably the most interesting and important test case of whether corporate America can push back against a growing campaign by Beijing to force brands around the world to bend to its will.

So far, pragmatism seems to have the upper hand. Rockets’ players James Harden and Russell Westbrook said in Tokyo today (Oct. 7), where the team is playing exhibition matches, that they “love China” and that they apologize for Morey’s comments.