SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Chinese state media on Wednesday accused the National Basketball Association (NBA) of endorsing violence and peddling a “secessionist pipe dream” in an escalating row over comments by a team official in support of protests in Hong Kong.
The tweet sent over the weekend by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has angered fans and authorities in China, threatening a business said to be worth more than $4 billion in a country where about 500 million fans consume NBA content.
Morey deleted the tweet backing the Hong Kong protests and apologised on Monday, but Chinese broadcasters, sportswear companies and sponsors have said they are reviewing their ties with the NBA, which has had a presence in China since 1992.
The NBA initially described the anger over Morey’s post as “regrettable,” drawing criticism from U.S. politicians who accused the league of putting its China business ahead of free speech.
But league commissioner Adam Silver, speaking Tuesday in Japan before a preseason game between the Rockets and Toronto Raptors, said it was not up to the league to regulate what players, employees and team owners said.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the official English-language China Daily accused Silver of “brazenly endorsing Morey’s secessionist-supporting tweet” and giving “a shot to the arms of the rioters of Hong Kong.”
“If Silver thinks endorsing the indiscriminate violence the radical Hong Kong protesters are resorting to … is supporting freedom of expression, then he should think again,” it said.
The protests were “a bid to liberate the city” and “a secessionist pipe-dream” peddled by demonstrators “to justify their summer hooliganism,” the newspaper added.
The protests were sparked by opposition to a law allowing extradition to mainland China, but have since evolved into broader calls for democracy. None of the protesters’ five demands is secession or independence.
The basketball furore also comes against the backdrop of the U.S.-China trade war, which escalated after Washington imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials on Tuesday.
The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, accused Silver of caving in to political pressure, saying the NBA was treating the Chinese market with arrogant disregard.
“Tweeting something offensive to the Chinese people before a series of NBA promotional activities in China only shows a lack of intellect, respect, and responsibility,” it said.
In a separate report, the newspaper also said that some Chinese internet users had made “disrespectful comments” about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
“(It) should remind Western media that for Chinese people, the Hong Kong riots are just like the 9/11, which is horrible and can’t be justified,” the Global Times said.
No one has been killed in several months of protests in Hong Kong, although scores – mostly protesters and journalists – have been hurt. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed 2,996 people and led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Basketball is the most popular sport in China, with about 300 million people playing the game. The NBA has deals with TV and digital media outlets across the country, and teams have played exhibition games annually since 2014.
NBA China, launched in 2008 to run the league’s business, is now worth more than $4 billion, according to Forbes.
The fallout from the Morey’s tweet continued on Wednesday.
The NBA had planned to stage media events in Shanghai this week ahead of a preseason exhibition game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday.
Organisers cancelled an event at a Shanghai school on Tuesday afternoon, as well as an open training session with the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, though a “fans’ night” was still on despite a boycott by Chinese celebrities.
State television has already halted plans to air exhibition games played in China this week, saying a country’s sovereignty and social stability were “not within the scope of freedom of speech.” China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong.
Chinese online travel agency Ctrip (CTRP.O) said late on Tuesday it had stopped sales of tickets to NBA games as well as NBA-related tour packages, joining a growing list of companies severing ties with the league.
“Ctrip firmly opposes any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability,” it said on the social media platform Weibo, adding that it would suspend cooperation with the NBA.
Reporting by David Stanway; Additional reporting by Xihao Jiang, Lusha Zhang and Huizhong Wu; Writing by Darren Schuettler; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Gerry Doyle