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NBA Events Go Ahead in China, Despite a Political Controversy That Has Spread to Gaming

UPDATED with NBA statement canceling media access to the teams for the rest of the tour

The NBA silenced players and shut out the press Thursday at a pre-season game between the L.A. Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai that has become a flash point in the debate over the costs and compromises of doing business with China.

Separately, a controversy over U.S. game publisher Activision Blizzard is polarizing the gaming world, pitting companies willing to bow to Chinese dictates against those prepared to anger Beijing by allowing open political discussion. China has long forced foreign enterprises to apologize for speech it deems counter to its interests, but the latest firestorms show that, amid the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it’s becoming harder for companies to claim neutrality or to know what line to toe.

Trouble for the NBA started Sunday when the Houston Rockets general manager tweeted — and quickly deleted — a message of support for the protests, which China’s ruling Communist Party sees as a threat to its rule. While the NBA has not technically apologized to China over the matter, it drew intense criticism for appearing to sacrifice principles for access to the enormous Chinese market, where its business is purportedly worth more than $4 billion.

The backlash from China has been swift and severe. State-run CCTV, which owns the exclusive broadcast rights to the NBA games, said it would not air them. At least 11 of the 13 Chinese firms among the 25 official partners listed on NBA China’s website have publicly stated that they have ended or suspended their cooperation with the league — leaving Thursday’s game notably devoid of sponsor ads. Major e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com have also pulled Houston Rockets merchandise. 

The NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, who stood up for NBA employees’ right to free speech Tuesday, have “destroyed 30 years of hard work in three days,” CCTV said in a commentary on its official social media account. On Friday, the NBA said it would cancel media availabilities for the players for the rest of the tour, which ends with a game Saturday in Shenzen.

“We have decided not to hold media availability for our teams for the remainder of our trip in China,” the NBA said. “They have been placed into a complicated and unprecedented situation while abroad and we believe it would be unfair to ask them to address these matters in real time.”

There was speculation that the first of two exhibition games due to take place in China this week would be canceled, especially as huge banners and posters promoting the event were pulled down across the city. The Chinese side canceled four NBA events in the lead-up to game day, including a Special Olympics basketball clinic.

Yet fans turned out in full force in Shanghai on Thursday to cheer on their beloved teams, while also wearing or carrying Chinese flags. Politics seemed to fade away during play, with the audience on the edge of its seat for the Lakers’ 114-111 win. Outside the stadium, however, many shouted expletives at Silver or brought along signs that cursed him. And when pushed, most said that ultimately their love of country would win out against their love of the sport.

Just hours before the match, reporters were told that a previously scheduled pre-game news conference with Silver would be canceled, and that there would be no press access to either team. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong issue still managed to creep into the event, in a most unlikely fashion.

The Nets played a promotional video in which players had to guess Bruce Lee’s famous catchphrase, “Be water.” It also happens to be one of the Hong Kong protesters’ top slogans, used to describe their leaderless and highly fluid organizing strategy. Mainland hoop fans didn’t catch the reference, applauding the video.

Ironically, the Nets’ owner, Alibaba founder Joe Tsai, has himself been extremely critical of the protests, echoing Beijing’s stance by calling them part of a “separatist movement,” even though full independence from the mainland has never been one of the protesters’ stated goals. 

U.S. outcry against the NBA has been mounting all week, particularly after American fans in Philadelphia and Washington have been kicked out of games and had signs confiscated on U.S. soil for expressing solidarity with the Hong Kong demonstrators. On Wednesday, eight members of Congress issued a bipartisan letter slamming the league for failing to put “fundamental democratic rights ahead of profit” and to anticipate “the challenges of doing business in a country run by a repressive single-party government.”

“We are deeply concerned that individuals associated with the league may now engage in self-censorship that is inconsistent with American and the league’s stated values — and that this incident will only encourage further intimidation of American companies and persons by the Chinese government,” said the statement, which was signed by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, among others. 

Meanwhile, the esports industry has also been thrown into similar turmoil over Hong Kong-related free speech this week. 

The hashtag #Blizzardboycott is trending because of Activision Blizzard’s decision to punish a winning gamer who shouted out a common Hong Kong protest slogan during a live-streamed post-match interview. Activision Blizzard judged that Hong Kong-based professional “Hearthstone” player Ng Wai Chung, 21, violated competition rules against “engaging in any act that…offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard’s image,” the firm said. It forced him to forfeit his $10,000 prize and gave him a year-long ban from the game’s pro league.

Blizzard is behind some of the most popular PC, mobile, console, and video games, including “Call of Duty,” “World of Warcraft,” “StarCraft,” and “Overwatch.” Chinese tech giant Tencent owns a 5% share in the company, which brought in 12% of its revenue from Asia last year, according to company filings.

While Americans boycott Blizzard, rival firm Epic Games, the backer of “Fortnite,” one of the world’s most popular titles, has set itself up for potential backlash in China by taking the opposite tack. Quickly after the controversy broke, its CEO, Tim Sweeney, tweeted Thursday that his firm “supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights” — even though Tencent has long been a 40% stakeholder in the company.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have jumped on the Blizzard case as well, with Sen. Ron Wyden accusing Blizzard of “humiliating itself” to please China and Sen. Marco Rubio tweeting: “Recognize what’s happening here…China [is] using access to market as leverage to crush free speech globally. Implications of this will be felt long after everyone in US politics today is gone.”

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