Photo credit: SupChina illustration. Chinese basketball superstar Yáo Míng 姚明 played on the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011.
Over the weekend, one of the best-known general managers of an NBA team found himself smack-dab in the middle of an international political nightmare.
- It all started with an October 4 tweet, now deleted, in which Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey shared with his approximately 200,000 followers an image that said, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” This is a slogan that has become a refrain among demonstrators in the embattled city, which has just undergone its 18th straight weekend of protests. However, expressing support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong is seen as insulting by pro-Beijing Chinese nationalists.
- Morey was immediately swarmed by outraged Chinese internet users, who spammed the replies to his tweet with “NMSL,” which stands for a Chinese internet insult meaning “Your mom died” (你妈死了 nǐ mā sǐ le). A data analysis of these commenters indicates that many could have been bots.
- The Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is former Rockets star Yáo Míng 姚明, suspended its relationship with the team. And then Chinese companies like sportswear brand Li-Ning and SPD Bank began pulling sponsorships.
The Rockets were, until now, the second-most-popular basketball team in China, after only the Golden State Warriors. They were probably the most popular team from 2002 to 2011, when Yao Ming was part of the team. In the years since, the NBA has become even more widely viewed (and profitable) in China.
The NBA twists itself to please Beijing
Faced with a threat to its business, the NBA promptly groveled to the fullest extent, releasing a statement in English on October 6 on how Morey’s expressing his views had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China,” which the organization called “regrettable.” This echoed the “sorry you were offended” tone of Morey’s own half-apology.
But the Chinese-language statement the NBA posted on Chinese social media was even more grovely, and much more closely resembled the statement of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, which said, “We are deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong.” Our translation:
We are extremely disappointed in the inappropriate remarks of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. He has undoubtedly severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.
Is China exporting political censorship?
What happened to the Houston Rockets and the NBA in recent days mirrors what has happened to countless international brands in recent months. Companies including Versace, Calvin Klein, and Taiwanese fruit tea chain Yifang have been forced to issue apologies for listing Hong Kong or Taiwan as countries on their websites or clothing and other perceived violations of China’s sovereignty.
But the Rockets are by far the most popular American brand to be targeted by Chinese nationalist fury so far, and the backlash from American public figures has been unusually bipartisan and loud. Democratic senator Chuck Schumer called the episode an attempt to “implement a gag rule on Americans,” while Republican Ted Cruz stated that “the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.”
Some of the Chinese outrage was, no doubt, organic, but the Houston consulate statement and the suspicious bot activity in Morey’s replies make us think that Beijing may have overplayed its hand with the pressure to conform to its version of political correctness in this case. The Hong Kong protests, if it wasn’t mainstream news before in the U.S., certainly is now, after landing in the middle of the sporting mainstream. And the way that China can easily subjugate any American company with a significant stake in its economy is now also much more transparent to Americans.