stats Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels


  This site         Tips

  The Web Google


  Where to Find It

Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business



Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store

Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business




  Arts & Entertainment



   Headline Index

 Other Sections

  Births & Deaths






  Facts & Arguments




  Real Estate









  Food & Dining




  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...


   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site



  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us



 Web Site

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


NBA faces wrath of China, and its people
Beijing's anger over basketball executive's social-media post pits patriotic fervour against brand loyalty

Email this article Print this article
Thursday, October 10, 2019 – Page B1

BEIJING -- China's hostile reaction to an NBA executive's tweet in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong has opened a window into the potency of nationalistic sentiment in the country, where consumers and sports fans have demonstrated a willingness to turn on brands for love of country.

It's a reflection of shifts among the Chinese population, with far-reaching consequences for the stability of foreign businesses in the world's secondlargest economy, where the government demands that companies censor their public statements if they intend to operate inside its borders.

The NBA is so popular in China that it has sold broadcast rights for 10-figure sums. Last season, online partner Tencent counted more than 500 million viewers for streamed games.

Shanghai-born Yao Ming, a former Houston Rockets star, is a national hero.

The size and dedication of the NBA's following in China, however, has been little match for the patriotic fervour in a country whose leadership has stoked nationalism amid a slowing economy and fraying relations with countries such as the United States.

On Wednesday, the state-run China Daily published an editorial that lashed out at NBA commissioner Adam Silver for upholding the league's commitment to free speech, just days after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted - then deleted - an image supporting prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong.

By "brazenly endorsing Morey's secessionist-supporting tweet," Mr. Silver has unleashed "Chinese people's anger at such displays of thoughtless prejudice," the newspaper wrote.

China's state-run CCTV has suspended broadcasts of preseason games in China this week, saying "any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech." Tencent also said it will not provide Chinese viewers access to Rockets content.

Even five years ago, such a ban on popular programming would have proven dangerous for China's leadership, given its potential to backfire.

After authorities cut mainland access to Instagram in 2014 in the midst of protests in Hong Kong, researchers estimated that more than eight million people in China turned to censorship-evasion software such as virtual private networks, or VPNs, to continue using the photo-sharing socialmedia network. Some of those users then began digging into other content that would otherwise be blocked, including political criticism of China.

"By motivating more people to acquire the ability to evade censorship, a sudden increase in censorship can erode its own effectiveness, can politicize previously apolitical citizens and can accumulate collective action potential that it often seeks to suppress," concluded the researchers, scholars at Northeastern University and the University of California, San Diego.

With the NBA, too, it's likely people "will find other ways" to watch, one Chinese basketball expert said in an interview. The Globe and Mail is not revealing his identity because of the political sensitivity of the matter. "If you can't get it through legal platforms, with technology nowadays you can do a lot of things."

But, he said, Mr. Morey's Hong Kong tweet landed at a particularly sensitive time, after the Oct. 1 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. "Almost everybody is showing their patriotic thing," he said.

As a result, there are now basketball fans "willing to stop watching."

Indeed, statistics maintained by App Annie show no change in Chinese VPN downloads this week.

For China's Communist Party leadership, the risk "is that millions of NBA fans are enraged they can't easily watch their favourite game," said Jeremy Goldkorn, a former director of media and internet consultancy Danwei who is now editor-in-chief of

But, he added, "the mood of nationalism seems to be so strong in China right now, perhaps they have nothing to fear." The NBA's troubles in China began with a consumer backlash rather than official opprobrium, said China Market Research Group founder Shaun Rein.

"This is genuine. People are angry," he said. "The Chinese consumer has become exceptionally patriotic after the U.S.-China trade war. The NBA will not win."

Mr. Rein has in the past been criticized for a proBeijing stand. But what he sees today "scares the hell" out of him. "That's why I've been thinking of moving to Canada or New Zealand." For foreign businesses contemplating expansion to China, his advice is stark: "You need to think two, three, four, five times about whether or not it makes sense."

Several international brands have fallen afoul of China over perceptions they have sanctioned support of the Hong Kong protesters. Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific has fired pilots, flight attendants and its chief executive. Video-game giant Blizzard booted a high-profile gamer. And, on Wednesday, Apple incurred the wrath of the People's Daily for allowing people in Hong Kong to download a mapping app used by protesters to identify the location of police. "Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision," the paper wrote.

The NBA, too, has discovered plenty of hurt feelings. The Globe interviewed the administrators of three NBA-related accounts on the Twitter-like Weibo service, who together count almost four million followers.

"My identity as Chinese is more important than my identity as a basketball fan," said Alex Wang, who counts 1.4 million followers on Weibo, which posts basketball videos. Without an apology from the NBA, "I won't post any more NBA-related videos," she said.

The ill will extends beyond China's borders. "For the moment I will not watch any NBA games. And I think many others are the same," said J. Deng, the U.S.-based administrator of another Weibo account with almost two million followers.

The NBA has backed Mr. Morey's right to speak his mind, with Mr. Silver saying this week: "As a league, we are not willing to compromise those values."

Chinese celebrities and sponsors have responded by abandoning the league, while the country's online shopping giants have been scrubbed of Rockets gear.

On Wednesday, the Shanghai Sports Federation cancelled an NBA fan event.

"It will be hard to ease tensions," said Chen Jing, a well-known social-media personality with half a million Weibo followers. "It seems likely that if the public opinion battle between China and the U.S. continues to grow sharper, the NBA will face another period of historical shutdown in China."

The NBA's struggles are confirmation of the stark new calculus that must be confronted by anyone doing business with China.

The Chinese Communist Party's goal is conformity with its priorities - and it "has the wherewithal these days to go pretty far in controlling that message," said William Zarit, a Beijing-based senior counsellor with the Cohen Group, a strategic advisory firm. That means Beijing generally demands that those with operations inside its borders keep to themselves opinions it and the Chinese people might find offensive.

"So companies have to make that decision," Mr. Zarit said. "If they want to be in China, they have to understand the rules of the game in China."

With reporting by Alexandra Li

Associated Graphic

A worker in Shanghai removes an NBA banner from a building ahead of Thursday's game between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers.


Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Johanna_Schneller Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.


7-Day Site Search

Breaking News

Today's Weather


Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes

Where Manley is going with his first budget



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
Margaret Wente arrow
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game

Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
Mathew Ingram arrow
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
Andrew Willis arrow

Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
Eric Duhatschek arrow
Allan Maki arrow
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
 The Arts

John Doyle arrow
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
Johanna Schneller arrow

Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
Paul Knox arrow
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
William Thorsell arrow

Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page