HONG KONG – THE N.B.A. star LeBron James routinely insulted President Trump. Two of the league's most successful coaches, Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, have repeatedly criticized US lawmakers for inaction in gun law. And other basketball stars often talk about social and political issues – shootings, elections and racism – without fear of league revenge.
But this weekend, a Houston Rockets executive accidentally raised a question that may have been too much for the National Basketball Association: support for protesters in Hong Kong, which angered China.
"Fight for freedom, stay with Hong Kong," said a Twitter post by Daryl Morey, general manager of Rockets. It was quickly deleted.
But the damage was done, and the N.B.A. It quickly moved to make things easier in a lucrative market that generates millions of dollars in revenue. The league said it was "unfortunate" that many Chinese fans were offended by the comment.
On Tuesday, China's state broadcaster CCTV said it would suspend broadcasts of the league's preseason games played in China. Some early Chinese reports of the station's statement, which left room for uncertainty, indicated that the ban covered all preseason games.
Sponsors in China broke off their deals with the Rockets, and China's top broadcaster said it would remove the team's games from its programming. Two programmed screening games for a low-level Rockets-affiliated team were also canceled.
The issue is familiar to Hollywood studios, big companies and individual athletes looking for business in a country of 1.4 billion people, and the reaction of the NB.A. reflects a corporate sensitivity to China's low tolerance for criticism of its political system.
The league statement, in turn, ignited supporters of Hong Kong protests and many fans in the United States, where protesters are often seen as fighting a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians have agreed to call the league a coward, accusing it of prioritizing money over human rights.
Speaking ahead of a scheduled preseason game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors in Japan, NB commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the consequences but said the league supported Morey's right to free speech.
"There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear" Silver told Kyodo News. "There have been pretty dramatic consequences of this tweet, and I've read some media suggesting that we don't support Daryl Morey, but we do."
On Tuesday, Silver again tried to limit the impact, saying the league's initial statement had made people "angry, confused or unclear about who we are or what the NB.A. supports."
"It is inevitable that people from all over the world – including America and China – will have different views on different issues," he said in a new statement. “It's not the role of N.B.A. to judge these differences. "
He continued: “However, N.B.A. You will not be in a position to regulate what players, staff and team owners say or do not say about these issues. We simply cannot operate this way. "
James and the Los Angeles Lakers play two games in China this week against Brooklyn Nets, a team owned by Joseph Tsai, the billionaire co-founder of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Tsai said in a statement on Sunday that Hong Kong was a "third rail issue" in China, calling the protesters' efforts a "separatist movement." (Many protesters deny being interested in independence, but Chinese state media sometimes portrayed them in this way.)
Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Rockets and Morey's boss, publicly scolded Morey, but later said that the general manager's job was not in danger.
The N.B.A. It is far from the first company to be forced to choose sides on geopolitical issues it never intended to engage in and ultimately bow to China's economic power.
China is an attractive – and necessary – attraction for almost all global institutions, with an economy that, while slowing down, continues to grow at a pace that is the envy of many countries. Any threat to China's ability to do business would have dire financial consequences for many multinational companies.
As a result, many companies have apologized or made concessions after angering China. In many cases, companies struggled to respond to comments or Twitter posts made by executives or other employees who generate unwanted attention on social networks.
"Obviously, companies and others realize that their business interests are at risk, so they are apologizing," said Shanthi Kalathil, senior director of the International Endowment for Democracy International Forum for Democratic Studies. “But where I perceived the risks is at the reputation level. These are respected global brands and there is a reputation cost in simply following the party line. "
In an effort to prevent loss of access to Chinese airspace, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's leading airline, has laid off employees who wrote social media posts in support of the protests. In August, Rupert Hogg, the airline's chief executive, resigned.
Nike, which supports James, pulled on some shoes after a designer 's support of the Hong Kong protests sparked a social media backlash against the brand.
The stakes are particularly high for N.B.A. in China.
Tencent Holdings, a Chinese technology conglomerate, reported that 490 million people watched N.B.A. programming on their platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched N.B.A Game 6. 2019 finals. By comparison, Nielsen measured 18.3 million viewers for the game on ABC.
The league recently announced a five-year extension of its partnership with Tencent to broadcast their games in China. for $ 1.5 billion.
"This is a massive indicator of the perceived value and enormous potential of the Chinese market," wrote Mailman, a sports digital marketing agency, in a recent report.
The N.B.A. was equally 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.
Rocket involvement is particularly problematic for NB.A., given the franchise's long standing status as one of China's most popular teams. 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 has suspended its relationship with the Rockets. It also canceled two NBA G League games scheduled this month between Rockets and Dallas Mavericks affiliates, said one 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 to 2.9 million followers on Twitter.
Rockets guard James Harden and one of the biggest stars in the NBA apologized directly to Chinese fans on Monday.
"We apologize. We love China, we love to play there," he told reporters in Tokyo, where the Rockets were preparing for the preseason game.
“We go there once or twice a year. They show us the greatest support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base and love everything they say, and we appreciate the support they give us, ”said Harden, who three years ago talked about the shooting of two black men by the police.
Echoing China's worldview, especially with regard to its sovereignty over disputed territories, is considered a cost to do business in the country, both for artists and companies.
Gap was forced to apologize in 2017 after selling a shirt that featured a map of China that did not include Taiwan, an autonomous island off the south 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, German carmaker Daimler apologized for using a quote from the Dalai Lama, which is widely viewed as a Tibetan separatist in China, in a social media post of its Mercedes-Benz brand.
In March 2018, China demanded that international airlines refer to Taiwan as part of China in its online booking systems, a request derided by the White House as “Orwellian nonsense” but eventually obeyed by all major carriers. .
Movie studios often find themselves at odds with state censors in a country where notions of freedom of expression do not apply, but billions of dollars are harnessed in international success.
Disney, which was more successful in navigating these waters than any other American entertainment company, is now in a position to promote the live-action adaptation of "Mulan" after Crystal Yifei Liu, your Chinese-American star, provoked a backlash in the United States and China, supporting a crackdown on protesters by Hong Kong police.
Disney, who has not commented, has advanced its position in China for decades, leading to the opening of Shanghai Disneyland in 2016 and spectacular results for films such as the recent "Avengers: Endgame", which grossed $ 858 million in the United States. and $ 614 million in China earlier this year. Last year, Chinese viewers bought about $ 8.87 billion in movie tickets, up 9 percent from a year earlier, box office analysts said.
For its part, the N.B.A. has resisted 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 seemed to use a racial slander for the Chinese people, which he later said was a …