What the NBA incident says about the expectations and strategies of Chinese politics

What the NBA incident says about the expectations and strategies of Chinese politics


This blog deals primarily with developments in Chinese football. However, it is worth taking a look beyond the horizon from time to time in order to better understand specific contexts and derive implications for one’s own profession and occupation.

Recently, there was an incident in the American National Basketball Association (NBA) that attracted a lot of attention. What happened? The general manager of the NBA-team Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, tweeted on October 4 “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong”.

Flashback: The Hong Kong protests in 2019 initially formed against a bill by the Hong Kong government, which would allow the extradition of fugitive offenders and convicts to mainland China. The relatively small protests increasingly developed into pro-democracy mass protests, which were publicly directed against the authority of the Chinese central government. The situation escalated as protesters and security authorities began to resort to violence.

Back to the tweet: Morey’s public support of the protests is so sensitive, not only because his club and the NBA have signed lucrative commercial agreements and formed partnerships with mainland China, but also because former Chinese NBA star and current official of the Chinese Communist Party Yao Ming played for the Houston Rockets.

Basketball is not just any other sport in China, but perhaps the most popular game according to a variety of indicators such as broadcasting time, practice across the country, online and offline media reach and levels of commercialisation, even ahead of football. In 2017, for instance, Zhou et al. (2017: 82) wrote that the NBA “has had remarkable success in the Chinese market. From the perspective of sport competition or marketing operations, the NBA’s achievement in China provides a model for other overseas sport leagues”.

However, this success as being considered a “model” for other actors in the realm of sports might be over now, since the reactions to this tweet came promptly and intensely. The spokesperson of the Chinese Consulate General in Houston announced, for instance, in an official statement that they “are deeply shocked by the erroneous comments on Hong Kong made by Mr. Daryl Morey [and] expressed strong dissatisfaction with the Houston Rockets”. Furthermore, the representative urged the NBA team “to correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact”. What exactly this “correction” meant was unclear at first. But later it was revealed that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was allegedly asked by the Chinese government to fire Daryl Morey. His answer was: “there’s no chance that’s happening […] there’s no chance we’ll even discipline him”.

Moreover, China’s state television broadcaster CCTV announced that it would suspend broadcasts of the NBA pre-season games and review all agreements with the NBA. Consequently, CCTV did not air the season opener between the reigning champion Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans. And, Chinese sponsors such as Mengniu Diary, Anta Sports, and Ctrip.com terminated their deals with the NBA.

After receiving the first negative reactions, Morey deleted his tweet quickly and wrote in response, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China”, but the emotional machinery had already been set in motion, and the damage was done. He further added: “I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event. I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives”. Michael Bass, the Chief Communication Officer of the NBA, distanced himself from Morey’s statements: “While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them”, meaning that Morey is allowed to form and express his personal ideas and opinions.

However, in Chinese social media, the NBA adopted a slightly different position, stating that they were “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment”. The assessment of NBA star LeBron James was similar: “I don’t want to get into a… feud with Daryl Morey but I believe he wasn’t educated about the situation at hand and he spoke […] Just be careful what we tweet… even though, yes, we do have freedom of speech. But there can be a lot of negative that comes with that too”. Sometime later, the first LeBron James jerseys burned in Hong Kong. James’ comments had infuriated many protesters in Hong Kong as they were interpreted as proof that he supported China.

These statements were considered by some people in the US as a Kowtow (磕头, ketou) – a withdrawal from freedom of speech to minimize their own financial losses. For instance, Ted Cruz, the Senator of Texas, tweeted that “[a]s a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong. Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating”. He further added: “We’re better than this; human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship”.

A few years ago, there was a similar incident in football. In 2017, the German Football Association (DFB) signed a series of cooperation agreements with Chinese partners. Following Xi Jinping’s inauguration as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, a “comprehensive” (全面, quanmian) football development strategy was launched in China between 2014 and 2016, including four far-reaching reform programmes. The strengthening of cooperation in the domain of football between the Federal Republic of Germany and the People’s Republic of China can be traced back to a proposal made by Chancellor Angela Merkel to President Xi Jinping during her state visit to China in June 2016.

Part of this cooperation agreement was that the Chinese U-20 national team would play against German fourth tier teams to prepare for the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020. The German teams were to receive €15,000 per game in return. But already after the first match the cooperation was terminated. What happened? After Tibetan human rights activists rolled out Tibet flags during the game, the Chinese players left the pitch in the middle of the first half. After a 25-minute break, the activists had to remove their flags. The incident triggered a debate about freedom of expression in Germany. A senior DFB official commented on the incident as follows: “We cannot ban protests, there is freedom of expression. But we also want to be good hosts. In this respect, we are not happy about these events”. Lu Kang, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, responded to the incident that the Chinese government is opposing “separatist, anti-China or terrorist activities”.

The Chinese government asked the DFB to ban “anti-China” statements from sporting venues. However, the DFB could not guarantee this. Subsequently, Chinese sponsors in Germany are reported to have announced the termination of collaborations and contracts. When the cooperation was about to fail, the then DFB President Reinhard Grindel visited Beijing to calm the emotions. However, he was not even welcomed at the gates. He therefore had to return to Germany empty-handed.

In comparison, the NBA has much higher bargaining power than the DFB. The advantage of the NBA is that there is de facto no alternative basketball league that enjoys similar popularity in China. The situation is very different in the domain of football. There are enough alternatives to cooperate with well-known brands that compete for access to the lucrative Chinese market. China commentator Bill Bishop described the NBA’s favourable position as follows: “The NBA has leverage in China, if it works as a united front. PRC fans, sponsors, web sites and broadcasters can shun one team, but they can not and will not shun an entire league. Do you really think those fans are going to be satisfied watching CBA [China Basketball Association] games? There would be a social stability cost to banning the NBA in China. I am serious”. For the Chinese Communist Party, nothing stands above domestic social stability.

These incidents and developments illustrate one thing in particular – whether we like it or not – we live in a globalised and interconnected world, where reciprocal influences and interdependencies are increasingly becoming apparent. This means that China’s increased economic strength has a considerable influence on how people deal with their own values, belief systems, and patterns of behaviours. On the other hand, popular foreign (cultural) products and brands in China have an influence on Chinese society despite actively practiced censorship.

The Chinese government expects from its partners in other countries that they protect their interests and proceed with a similar severity against those who deviate from the political line in Beijing. Financial incentives are used deliberately as a strategy to punish perceived misconduct and reward loyal advocates. Foreign stakeholders are thereby played off against each other as far as possible. The formation of common positions towards China is thus made more difficult – not only in the context of sport, but also in other economic and political fields. The Leninist party dictatorship in China seems to be capable of effectively creating an extensive homogenisation of interests and coordinating a corresponding synchronisation of commercial behaviour, which favours this strategic approach and ensures the assertion of Chinese interests in other countries.

Ilker Gündogan

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