Hong Kong Protestors Voice Disappointment in LeBron James: "He Supports Totalitarianism?"

LeBron James - Getty - H 2019
Meg Oliphant/BIG3 via Getty Images

The L.A. Lakers star tried to clarify his comments — "My team and this league just went through a difficult week" — but many in Hong Kong argued that any such unpleasantness was little compared to police brutality.

LeBron James, usually held up as a progressive icon, is getting slammed for the comments he made Monday night criticizing Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey for his recent tweet in support of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.

"I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke," James said of Morey. "So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually."

The remarks from James, arguably the world's most influential basketball player, sparked a wave of backlash on social media both stateside and internationally, with U.S. politicians, Hong Kong protestors and other observers questioning whether the Lakers star was just the latest sports and entertainment industry leader to put business interests in China ahead of democratic values.

The online platform LIHKG, the forum favored by Hong Kong's protestors, was awash with criticism and handwringing Tuesday. "Has he been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party's fake news or has he been bought?" wrote one user.

"I really cannot believe that someone from the U.S. would not cherish the precious freedom of speech they have," added another.

One of James' tweets from 2018 quoting Martin Luther King Jr. went viral in Hong Kong Tuesday in a stream of sarcastic retweets. 

Said one user on LIHKG: "Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights, but LeBron James supports totalitarianism?"

The U.S. backlash on Twitter has been just as heated. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., was among those who jumped in: "It’s sad to see him join the chorus kowtowing to Communist China & putting profits over human rights for #HongKong."

James made his statements at the Staples Center before the first of the Lakers' two preseason games against the Golden State Warriors. Within hours he took to Twitter to address the backlash with a clarification.

"Let me clear up the confusion," he wrote in one of his posts. "I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance. Others can talk about that."

He added in a second tweet: "My team and this league just went through a difficult week. I think people need to understand what a tweet or statement can do to others."

The Chinese government's response to Morey's single, original tweet ("Fight for freedom, stand for Hong Kong," it simply read), indeed caused ramifications for the NBA in China last week. Local TV broadcasts of the Lakers and Nets exhibition games in China were canceled, local sponsorship deals were voided and various fan events scrapped.

But James' clarification appears to have generated only more ridicule in Hong Kong and among those sympathetic to the city's pro-democracy movement.

"Imagine the 'difficult weeks' protestors in Hong Kong have gone through," fired back one LIHKG user, referencing the Hong Kong police force's brutal suppression of the city's originally peaceful protest movement.

Wrote U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley on Twitter: "Having just been in Hong Kong — on the streets & with the protestors — this kind of garbage is hard to take. LeBron, are YOU educated on "the situation"? Why don’t you go to Hong Kong? Why don’t you meet the people there risking their lives for their most basic liberties."

The reaction to James' comments online in mainland China, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly positive. "He is the real hero of America," said one user on the Twitter-like Weibo service, who called James "an NBA friend that we can welcome in China." Thousands of similar statements supporting James have proliferated. 

James' business interests in China are enormous, thanks to his lifelong endorsement deal with Nike and his starring role in Warner Bros.' Space Jam 2, which was likely greenlit with the huge China box office partly in mind, given the popularity of basketball in the country.

Prior to the Lakers star's remarks, tensions between the NBA and China appeared to be on the wane. The Chinese government had instructed state-run media last week to limit coverage of the conflict, according to sources cited by the Wall Street Journal. And Internet giant Tencent, which has a $1.5 billion streaming deal with the NBA, had begun rescheduling coverage of the league after temporarily canceling all broadcasts. But the controversial comments from the NBA's most popular player have thrust the issue back into the global spotlight.