Chinese basketball fans filled an arena Thursday in Shanghai for a National Basketball Association exhibition game despite the ongoing public backlash over a tweet from the Houston Rockets general manager in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
Video posted on social media by a Los Angeles Times reporter show Chinese fans, many wearing NBA jerseys, cheering and taking pictures as the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets made their way onto the court.
But after the game, there was no press availability involving players or coaches. The game was also not broadcast on television in China.
The controversy started when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image that read "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong." Morey has since deleted the tweet but the response from Chinese companies and the public was swift, with many suspending ties with the Rockets, one of the most popular teams in China because of its former star center, Yao Ming. The NBA issued regret over the tweet but many U.S. politicians urged the league to respect freedom of expression by its employees.
China said its state television would not show many NBA games being played in the country this week. Chinese tech giant Tencent followed suit. Tencent platforms streamed NBA games to 490 million fans in China, according to a press release by the NBA in July 2019.
According to the Associated Press, Houston Rockets merchandise has been blacklisted from Taobao, a popular Chinese e-commerce website.
NBA grapples with speech restrictions
The Rockets this week have been in Japan, where on Thursday they played against the Toronto Raptors. Afterward, a CNN reporter tried to ask star Rockets players James Harden and Russell Westbrook about the controversy, but she was interrupted and told by a Rockets team official she could only ask "basketball" questions.
In the United States, a group of people at a Washington Wizards basketball game against the Chinese Basketball Association's Guangzhou Loong Lions on Wednesday night held up signs saying, "Google Uyghurs" and wore shirts that said, "Free Hong Kong." Security guards removed the demonstrators from their seats. The arena in Washington has a policy against holding up political signs.
China has faced international criticism over its treatment of the Uighurs. More than 1 million Uighurs, members of a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China, are currently held in Xinjiang internment camps, referred to as "concentration camps" by human rights organizations and former detainees. Chinese officials describe these camps as "vocational education centers" for job training.
On Tuesday, two people were removed from a Philadelphia 76ers game because they carried small signs that read, "Free Hong Kong" and "Free HK."
U.S. professional sports leagues are no strangers to political controversy. In 2016, the NFL drew attention when several African American players began sitting during the national anthem, participating in "Black Lives Matter" protests over the treatment of black people in the United States.
Since then, the leagues, owners and players have negotiated over when and where political statements are appropriate. The NBA has been seen as the most permissive American professional sports league for allowing the airing of political views.
An NBA statement issued earlier this week appeared to indicate that policy may shift when it comes to Chinese political views.
"We recognize that the views expressed by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable," a spokesman said.
"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."
U.S. politicians criticized that position.
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley wrote a letter to the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, and the 30 NBA team owners criticizing their decision to "help the most brutal of regimes silence dissent in pursuit of profit."
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a socialist-leaning Democrat, and Republican Senator Ted Cruz were among those signing a letter saying, "It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States. "
China has been facing international pressure over its support of crackdowns against protesters in Hong Kong. The protests started in opposition to a law that would have allowed mainland China to extradite citizens from Hong Kong. The territory's chief executive, Carrie Lam, later announced her government planned to officially withdraw the bill. The demonstrations, however, have continued over what protesters see as China's efforts to restrict Hong Kong's autonomy.