NBA's Apology to China Draws Outrage Across Political Spectrum

Houston Rockets in China - Getty - H 2019
Bob Levey/Getty Images

After Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted to express his solidarity with Hong Kong's pro-democracy protestors, the NBA went into damage control, saying it was "extremely disappointed" in the exec's "inappropriate comment," which had "undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans."

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's tweet of support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong may have inspired a firestorm of outrage in China. But the NBA's apology over Morey's statement is now generating its own avalanche of bipartisan criticism in the U.S.

Voices from across the political spectrum are slamming the NBA for putting market access in China ahead of human rights and freedom of speech, with many arguing that the kowtowing of American businesses to China's state propaganda priorities has to stop.

Former Obama White House staffer Ben Rhodes took to Twitter to unleash a series of statements slamming the NBA's climb down to China. "Just consider that the NBA is suggesting that supporting democracy and human rights 'does not represent' the NBA or the values that the league supports. What values does the league support?," he wrote.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a noted Rockets fan, meanwhile, tweeted: "We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship."

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro also added his voice: "The United States must lead with our values and speak out for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and not allow American citizens to be bullied by an authoritarian government."

The incident, which is rapidly becoming an international inflection point, began late Friday when Morey tweeted an image with the words “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” — a reference to the pro-democracy protests against China’s authoritarian government that have stormed the city's streets for weeks.

Although Twitter is banned in China, word of the tweet immediately went viral in China, where control over Hong Kong is one of Beijing's central propaganda priorities. Social media users — scores of organic users as well as the usual government-backed trolls — immediately began calling for a Rockets boycott and for the NBA to reprimand Morey for having "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

The official fall from grace for the Rockets in China was especially striking, since they have been one of the very most popular teams in the country for years, thanks to the legendary career of local hero Yao Ming at the franchise. 

The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial slamming Morey's comments, and the Rockets' sponsors in China pulled their money from the team, while local Internet giant Tencent, which has a $1.5 billion broadcast deal with the NBA, said it would stop streaming Rockets games. State broadcaster CCTV also said it would suspend broadcasts of the team's games. 

But it was the Rockets' and the NBA's reaction to the potential business damage that inspired disgust in the U.S. Twittersphere.

Morey quickly deleted his tweet, while Houston owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted that the exec doesn’t speak for the team, telling ESPN: "We got a huge backlash, and I wanted to make clear that the organization has no political position."

The NBA later issued its own pair of official statements, one in English and one in Chinese. The English apology said that it was "regrettable" that Morey’s tweet had offended Chinese fans, but it also included a wishy-washy affirmation of the league's commitment to freedom of expression. "The values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them," the statement from NBA spokesman Mike Bass included. 

The Chinese statement, however — as bilingual Twitter users were quick to point out — was markedly different in tone and substance. The Chinese version stated that the league was "extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey," and that "he has undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans."

The use of "hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans" jumped out for China watchers, who recognized the phrase as one of the favored propaganda terms used by Beijing's Foreign Ministry whenever Western brands or individuals speak out on issues related to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement or China's other territorial disputes.

In an effort to salvage a major business relationship, the NBA, critics noted, was cravenly parroting the exact propaganda wording that Beijing uses to stir up nationalistic fervor over such political issues.

While many celebrities and other NBA figures with their own business interests to protect were conspicuously silent on the issue, the furor continued to come fast from both sides of the political aisle Sunday. Some of those who commented included Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, Democratic presidential candidates Beto O'Rourke and Julian Castro, former Obama staffers Tommy Vietor and Dan Pfeiffer, Republican Sen. Rick Scott and others. One of the few, if not only, major NBA figure to openly criticize Morey on U.S. social media was Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, executive vice chairman of Chinese tech giant Alibaba. 

See some of the tweets below.