NBA boss defends freedom of speech amid China row

Adam Silver speaking at a press conference in Japan on 8 October

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The US National Basketball Association (NBA) has defended free speech amid a row with China over a team executive’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protests.

The tweet posted by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, caused uproar in China and his attempt to backtrack upset American fans.

But NBA boss Adam Silver defended Mr Morey and said the league would “support freedom of expression”.

NBA games draw huge viewership in China, mainly via streaming platforms.

The Rockets have been popular there since the team signed Chinese star Yao Ming in 2002. Mr Yao now heads the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

But Mr Morey’s tweet prompted a furious backlash in China, with broadcasters vowing to stop airing Rockets games.

They went further on Tuesday by scrapping plans to broadcast two NBA pre-season games being played in China.

The NBA is just the latest international business to be embroiled in controversy in both China and the US over the Hong Kong protests. But the organisation’s strong defence of freedom of expression is unusual.

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Yao Ming – 7ft 6ins tall (2.29m) – played for the Houston Rockets between 2002 and 2011

How did the controversy start?

On Friday, Mr Morey posted a tweet with an image captioned: “Fight For Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.”

He was referencing months of pro-democracy protests in the territory, which is part of China but enjoys unique freedoms.

Chinese officials and media have reacted furiously to foreign expressions of support for the protesters and accused the West of interfering in Chinese affairs.

In response to Mr Morey’s tweet, state-run broadcaster CCTV and Tencent Holdings, which streams NBA games in China, said they would stop broadcasting Rockets matches.

On Sunday the CBA suspended co-operation with the team, as did Chinese sportswear brand Li-Ning and the club’s sponsor in China, Shanghai Pudong Development Bank.

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Daryl Morey is regarded as an innovative figure in the NBA

On Monday, Mr Morey deleted the tweet and said: “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”

“I have always appreciated the significant support our Chinese fans and sponsors,” he added.

But American fans reacted angrily to his apology, with one tweet saying: “You shouldn’t have to apologise for supporting freedom.”

How did the NBA respond?

On Tuesday Mr Silver issued a statement saying: “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”

He later told reporters in Japan that the league would not compromise its values on freedom of speech and was motivated by more than money.

The NBA commissioner said he understood there would be consequences but that “we will have to live with those consequences.”

He said he would travel to Shanghai on Wednesday and meet the officials to try to “find mutual respect”. But he recognised that “this issue might not die down so quickly”.

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The Houston Rockets played the Toronto Raptors in Japan on Tuesday

His defence of free speech in the face of Chinese anger is seen as a bold move, given the potential financial impact for the NBA.

“The vast majority of foreign companies apologize profusely at the first sign of discontent from Chinese consumers, which makes the NBA’s response all the more remarkable,” tweeted Mark Dreyer, an expert on China’s sports industry.

How has this story played out in the US?

Initially the Rockets and the NBA distanced themselves from Mr Morley’s tweet. This provoked accusations from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers that the league was bowing to Beijing.

Former US presidential hopeful – and Rockets fan – Ted Cruz accused the NBA of “shamefully retreating” in pursuit of profit.

Mr Cruz said he was proud to see Mr Morey “call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong”.

Fellow Republican Senator Ben Sasse called the NBA’s response “shameful”.

Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro tweeted that the US must “not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government”.

Who else has angered China over Hong Kong?

Also on Tuesday, a Hong-Kong professional gamer was banned by game-maker Blizzard from competing for 12 months for staging an anti-government protest.

Ng Wai Chung put on a gas mask and shouted: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our age,” after a Grandmasters Hearthstone tournament.

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Ng Wai Chung wore the gas mask to show solidarity with Hong Kong protesters, who wear them to avoid tear gas

In September, Zara became a target of anger on Chinese social media after some of its Hong Kong stores closed on a day of strike action.

China accused the retailer of encouraging its employees to join the strike but Zara said it was just ensuring its shops were not understaffed if transport was disrupted.

In August the chief executive of airline Cathay Pacific stood down after the company shifted its stance on whether employees could join protests.

And in the same month Versace had to apologise to China after one of its T-shirts appeared to imply Hong Kong and Macau were independent territories.

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