All Beef, No Broccoli as Wok Sizzles Between China and the NBA

This post is by Eileen Dinn.

In Hong Kong, the fourth month of anti-government protests continues to draw international attention. The protests arose this summer against a proposed extradition bill that would permit criminal extradition to the Chinese mainland. This had not been previously instituted because Hong Kong, though a part of China, retains a certain amount of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” agreement, which allows them to have an independent legal and judiciary system. Protesters argue that the proposed bill would subject citizens of Hong Kong to unfair treatment in China as well as giving the Chinese government more power to strip away some of Hong Kong’s independence. The protests erupted over the summer and have since evolved into a holistic pro-democracy movement, intensifying the fight even more and sparking issues of police brutality. The demonstrations continue to make an international splash, attracting reactions both in favor and against the pro-democracy movement.

In large part, the international community has been treading lightly on the issue given China’s economic power. The United States and the United Kingdom have both called for demonstrators’ rights to be protected and the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has urged Hong Kong to “listen to the concerns of its people and its friends in the international community and to pause and reflect on these controversial measures.” As the police brutality has worsened, however, concern from the international community has grown – notably, from the NBA. Most organizations have a “three t’s” rule pertaining to things they don’t mention – Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square – because they know that it will get them into hot water with China. In the wake of the following tweet, most individuals are holding tight to this rule, not wanting to send anymore shock waves through this relationship.

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Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Raptors, tweeted on Sunday night “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Though the tweet was quickly deleted, its implications were not lost on the Chinese fans and sponsors who contribute billions to the NBA each year. As of right now, all of the NBA’s partners in China, mainly tech giant Tencent and Luckin Coffee, have suspended their connections with the NBA, their games have been pulled from Chinese programming, and scheduled events in Shanghai have been canceled for this week. Coaches are not commenting on the situation and agents are advising their players to do the same. In an interview, Steph Curry said “This situation, there’s a huge weight and gravity to it. There’s going to need to be some things to be sorted out. But I just don’t know enough about Chinese history and how that’s influenced modern society…this is not going away. So we’ll come back to it” – needless to say, everyone is on edge. China is mad at the NBA for thinking that they can get involved in the situation. Many people in the US are mad at the NBA for not getting involved in the situation, saying that they are giving power to ‘the mighty dollar’ over fighting for what is right. In an attempt to appease both sides and essentially have it both ways, the NBA issued a statement clarifying that “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.”

As a matter of fact, yes – but not in the way you would hope. This week, Apple and Google actually appeased China by pulling an app, HKmap.live, that enabled protesters to see the activity and whereabouts of the police after the Hong Kong’s Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau claimed that it was being “used to target and ambush police” and that “criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.”

The ball is in the NBA’s court now. They are getting dunked on from both sides – China, obviously, and critics in the United States who are calling for them to make an even bolder statement and achieve some substantial change. At any rate, the NBA is in a very tricky spot but the significance of Apple’s and Google’s actions demonstrate the great weight that China carries when it comes to using their financial power to influence American corporations. At the end of the day, it is going to come down to the NBA making a decision of whether to please those in the United States with the belief that democracy and freedom shall prevail or succumb to the mighty dollar and save the billions that China contributes to individual athletes through endorsements as well as to the league itself.

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