Chinese businesses suspend ties with Houston Rockets over Hong Kong tweet

Chinese businesses suspend ties with Houston Rockets over Hong Kong tweet

Daryl Morey set off a firestorm in mainland China over the weekend when he posted an image on Twitter that read, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing, which controls the former British colony, have been fueled by months of political unrest.

Backlash from China followed quickly. The Chinese Basketball Association said Sunday it would suspend all cooperation with the Texas-based team. The association’s chairman is Yao Ming, a former Rockets player.

The NBA team’s partnerships in China were thrown into doubt, too. CCTV 5, the sports channel of China’s top state broadcaster, announced that it would suspend airing Houston Rockets events on television.

And Tencent Sports said it would suspend live streaming for Houston Rockets games, as well as news about the team. Tencent (TCEHY) is the NBA’s exclusive, official digital partner in China. Nearly 500 million people in China watched NBA programming on Tencent platforms, according to the companies. They recently signed a five-year extension of that partnership.
Sponsors distanced themselves from the Houston Rockets as well. Li-Ning Company, which makes sportswear, and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank each said over the weekend that they would suspend cooperation with the team.

The backlash triggered responses from the NBA and Morey. The NBA said Monday that it recognizes that Morey’s views “have deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

“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,” NBA Chief Communications Officer Mike Bass said in a statement, which was published on the Chinese social media website Weibo. “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Morey on Monday said in a series of tweets that he was speaking on his own behalf.

“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China,” Morey said. “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.”

Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tried to distance the team from politics. The team is in Tokyo for a series of preseason games against the Toronto Raptors this week.

Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets. Our presence in Tokyo is all about the promotion of the @NBA internationally and we are NOT a political organization,” Fertitta said Saturday on Twitter.

The NBA’s response, though, has sparked controversy in the United States. Several US politicians criticized the organization.

“It’s clear that the NBA is more interested in money than human rights,” said Senator Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, on Twitter. “The NBA is kowtowing to Beijing to protect their bottom line and disavowing those with the temerity to #standwithHongKong. Shameful!”

Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas who is running for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, called the NBA’s response “an embarrassment.”

“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” he wrote on Twitter.

Joe Tsai, the executive vice chairman of Chinese tech giant Alibaba (BABA) and owner of the Brooklyn Nets NBA franchise, sought to diffuse the tensions.
“The NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues,” Tsai wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, before outlining the problem with supporting what he described as a “separatist movement” in a territory controlled by China.

“Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable,” he said.

Tsai also partially defended Morey, while urging Chinese fans to “keep the faith” in the NBA.

“I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been,” he said. “But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.”

CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed to this report.

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