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Hong Kong Protests Put N.B.A. on Edge in China

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HONG KONG — The N.B.A. superstar LeBron James has routinely insulted President Trump. Two of the league’s most successful coaches, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, have repeatedly slammed American lawmakers for inaction on gun legislation. And other basketball stars regularly speak out on social and political issues — police shootings, elections and racism — without fear of retribution from the league.

But this weekend, a Houston Rockets executive unwittingly exposed an issue that may have been too much for the National Basketball Association: support for protesters in Hong Kong, which infuriated China.

“Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” said a post on Twitter by Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Rockets. It was quickly deleted.

But the damage was done, and the N.B.A. quickly moved to smooth things over in a lucrative market that generates millions of dollars in revenue. The league said it was “regrettable” that many Chinese fans were offended by the comment.

On Tuesday, CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, said it would suspend broadcasts of the league’s preseason games played in China. Some initial Chinese reports of the broadcaster’s statement, which left room for uncertainty, indicated that the ban covered all preseason games.

Sponsors in China paused their deals with the Rockets, and the country’s main broadcaster said it would remove the team’s games from its schedule. Two exhibition games scheduled for a low-level team affiliated with the Rockets were also canceled.

The issue is familiar to Hollywood studios, major companies and individual athletes chasing business in a country with 1.4 billion people, and the N.B.A.’s reaction reflects a corporate sensitivity toward China’s low tolerance for criticism of its political system.

The league’s statement, in turn, inflamed supporters of the Hong Kong protests and many fans in the United States, where the protesters are generally seen as battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights.

Speaking ahead of a scheduled preseason game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors in Japan, the N.B.A.’s commissioner, Adam Silver, acknowledged the fallout but said the league supported Morey’s right to free expression.

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News. “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.”

On Tuesday, Silver tried again to limit the impact, saying that the league’s initial statement had left people “angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the N.B.A. stands for.”

“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues,” he said in a new statement. “It is not the role of the N.B.A. to adjudicate those differences.”

He continued: “However, the N.B.A. will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way.”

James and the Los Angeles Lakers play two games in China this week against the Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Tsai said in a statement late Sunday that Hong Kong was a “third-rail issue” in China, calling the efforts by protesters a “separatist movement.” (Most protesters deny they are interested in independence, but the Chinese state media has at times depicted them that way.)

Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets and Morey’s boss, publicly rebuked Morey but said later that the general manager’s job was not in danger.

The N.B.A. is far from the first company to find itself forced to choose sides on geopolitical issues it never intended to be involved in, and to ultimately bow to China’s economic might.

China is an attractive — and necessary — lure for nearly all global institutions, with an economy that while slowing, continues to grow at a pace that is the envy of many countries. Any threat to an ability to do business in China would have dire financial consequences for many multinational corporations.

As a result, many companies have apologized or made concessions after angering China. In many cases, the companies found themselves scrambling to respond to comments or Twitter posts made by executives or other employees that generate unwanted attention on social networks.

“Obviously corporations and others perceive that their business interests are at risk, so they are apologizing,” said Shanthi Kalathil, the senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. “But where I would perceive the risks is at the level of reputation. These are well-respected global brands and there is reputational cost to simply going along with the party line.”

In an effort to avoid losing access to Chinese airspace, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, fired employees who wrote posts on social media in support of the protests. In August, Rupert Hogg, the airline’s chief executive, resigned.

Nike, which endorses James, pulled some shoes after a fashion designer’s support for the Hong Kong protests sparked a social media backlash against the brand.

The stakes are particularly high for the N.B.A. in China.

Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, reported that 490 million people watched N.B.A. programming on its platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals. By comparison, Nielsen measured 18.3 million viewers for the game on the American network ABC.

The league recently announced a five-year extension of its partnership with Tencent to stream its games in China for a reported $1.5 billion.

“This is a massive indicator for the perceived value and enormous potential of the China market,” Mailman, a sports digital marketing agency, wrote in a recent report.

The N.B.A. has been similarly successful on Chinese social media. The league has 41.8 million followers on Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, compared with 38.6 million followers on Facebook and 28.4 million on Twitter.

The involvement of the Rockets is particularly troublesome for the N.B.A., given the franchise’s longtime status as among the most popular team in China. Yao Ming, considered the crown jewel of Chinese basketball, played for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.

Yao is now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which suspended its relationship with the Rockets. It also canceled two NBA G League games scheduled for this month between affiliates of the Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, said a person with knowledge of the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Houston was the second-most-popular team in China behind the Golden State Warriors last year, according to Mailman. The team had 7.3 million followers on Weibo, compared with 2.9 million followers on Twitter.

James Harden, a Rockets guard and one of the N.B.A.’s biggest stars, directly apologized to Chinese fans on Monday.

“We apologize. We love China, we love playing there,” he told reporters in Tokyo, where the Rockets were preparing for their preseason game.

“We go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they’re about, and we appreciate the support that they give us,” said Harden, who three years ago spoke out about the shootings of two black men by police.

Echoing China’s worldview, especially as it relates to its sovereignty over disputed territories, is considered a cost of doing business there, for both entertainers and companies.

Gap was forced to apologize in 2017 after selling a shirt that featured a map of China that did not include Taiwan, a self-governing island off its southern coast. The Marriott International hotel chain apologized in January 2018 for listing Tibet, a region of western China, and Taiwan as countries in a customer survey.

In February 2018, the German automaker Daimler apologized for using a quotation from the Dalai Lama, who is widely viewed as a Tibetan separatist in China, in a social media post from its Mercedes-Benz brand.

In March 2018, China demanded that international airlines refer to Taiwan as part of China in their online booking systems, a request mocked by the White House as “Orwellian nonsense” but eventually obeyed by all major carriers.

Movie studios frequently find themselves at odds with state censors in a country where notions of free expression do not apply but billions of dollars ride on international success.

Disney, which has been more successful at navigating these waters than any other American entertainment company, is now in the position of promoting the live-action adaptation of “Mulan” after Crystal Yifei Liu, its Chinese-American star, prompted dueling backlash in the United States and China by supporting a crackdown on protesters by Hong Kong police.

Disney, which had no comment, has inched forward in its positioning in China for decades, leading to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland in 2016 and spectacular results for films like the recent “Avengers: Endgame,” which took in $858 million in the United States and $614 million in China earlier this year. Last year, Chinese moviegoers bought an estimated $8.87 billion in movie tickets, up 9 percent from a year earlier, according to box office analysts.

For its part, the N.B.A. has weathered outrage in China before. Last year, J.J. Redick, then of the Philadelphia 76ers, recorded a video for the Chinese New Year in which he appeared to use a racial slur for Chinese people, which he later said was an unintentional verbal slip. He apologized, but was roundly booed when he touched the ball during preseason games in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Claire Fu, Sopan Deb, Julie Creswell and Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.

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