Houston is 8,333 miles away from Hong Kong, but despite being literally on the other side of the world, these two diverse cities are making major news headlines and heated debates following one seemingly innocuous tweet. One tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has put the NBA in a thorny situation with the government of China.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted then deleted support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong who were fighting back against the Chinese government. The graphic simply said: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” but it upset the Chinese Communist Party, which has attempted to stifle the months-long insurrection in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong citizens have been fighting against new rules that would allow extradition to mainland China. Hong Kong residents are worried that extradition to mainland China would infringe on their freedoms and is against the “one country, two systems” deal they were provided once Britain gave up the authority of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Thousands of protesters rallied against China. Riot police have used tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters leading to over 2,000 injuries and nearly arrests.
Morey was seemingly forced to issue an apology to China after Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted: “Listen….@dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization.”
The NBA issued a statement and called Morey’s tweet “regrettable.”
However, the Financial Times reports that the NBA’s English statement was worded differently than the Chinese version.
The Chinese statement appeared to condemn Mr. Morey’s tweet more strongly, saying the NBA was “extremely disappointed by the inappropriate comment” and that “he has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans. The references to “inappropriate” and “hurt feelings” are considered significant, as they were seen to echo language often used by Chinese officials to describe cultural gaffes by foreign groups.
Earlier this year, the NBA signed a five-year extension to its online screening rights deal with Tencent worth $1.5 billion according to the Financial Times. Tencent is a Chinese internet conglomerate that is the world’s sixth-largest internet company by revenue.
The National Basketball Association also has a training camp in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is where there is a “free hospital treatment for the masses with sick thinking,” according to the Chinese government. Slate calls the “free hospital” a “concentration camp” that imprisons “a million Muslims.”
Now, Rockets star James Harden has issued an apology to China for Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong.
“We apologize. We love China,” Harden said while standing alongside Rockets guard Russell Westbrook. “We love playing there. Both of us, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love, so we appreciate them as a fanbase, and we love everything they’re about. We appreciate the support they give us individually and as an organization. We love you.”
Keith Olbermann and Florida Senator Marco Rubio spoke out against the NBA’s statement and Harden’s apology to China.
Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai condemned Morey’s tweet and said the “hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.” In Tsai’s statement, the Nets governor and Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire who co-founded Chinese retail conglomerate the Alibaba Group, said:
“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.
The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.”
By now, I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China. I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.
I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China. I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.”
Response to Morey’s tweet by the Chinese has been rapid. Shams Charania, NBA journalist at The Athletic, tweeted: “In response to social media events over weekend, China (Chinese Basketball Association) has canceled NBA G League’s planned exhibition games between Rockets affiliate (Rio Grande Valley) and Dallas Mavericks affiliate (Texas) scheduled later this month in China.”
“League sources told me that Rockets ownership has ‘absolutely discussed’ whether Morey should be removed as general manager in an attempt to mitigate the fallout, appease the Chinese government and business interests, and reestablish ties,” according to John Gonzalez at The Ringer.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league is supporting Morey.
“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News on 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.”
“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.
In an interview with The Undefeated in December of 2016, Silver was asked about how it appears hypocritical to oppose a policy such as the North Carolina bathroom bill but then play games in communist China where there are far fewer personal freedoms and much more authoritarianism.
“I hear fans loud and clear who say, ‘How is it that you do business in China when you move the All-Star Game out of North Carolina?’” he said. “Because there are not a lot of fundamental protections afforded Chinese citizens that are afforded to American citizens. And I … I don’t have a cut-and-dried response to that.
“One of my answers is, we are not engaged in any way of an economic boycott of North Carolina … 29 teams will travel to North Carolina this season and stay in their hotels and eat in their restaurants. Talk about authentic, I realize people could say, ‘If that’s the standard, you shouldn’t play a preseason game in China.’ The fact is, we think by bringing the NBA to China and exposing the Chinese people to the NBA … it’s net incredibly positive for us to be engaged in that activity. It wasn’t a net positive to continue the track we were on and playing our All-Star Game this season in Charlotte.”
Coincidentally, last week’s South Park episode lampooned huge U.S. companies such as Disney and Marvel who bend their principles to have the opportunity to sell their product to the massive Chinese market that has nearly 1.4 billion people. Since the episode aptly titled “Band in China” aired, China has banned South Park from the authoritarian communist country.