SHANGHAI (AFP, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - China's state-run broadcaster said on Tuesday (Oct 8) that it would immediately suspend plans to broadcast two NBA pre-season exhibition games being staged in China this week as the fallout grew over an NBA's executive's tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong.
"We believe that any comments that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech," China Central Television (CCTV) said on its social media account.
"To this end, CCTV's Sports Channel has decided to immediately suspend plans to broadcast the NBA pre-season (China Games) and will immediately investigate all cooperation and communication involving the NBA."
The US basketball league is facing a mounting backlash in China over a tweet last week by Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for protesters in Hong Kong who have staged increasingly violent demonstrations to demand more freedoms.
The NBA is "not apologising" for the tweet from the Houston Rockets executive supporting Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests, the organisation's commissioner said on Tuesday, despite a backlash in China.
"We are not apologising for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression," NBA chief Adam Silver said, referring to Mr Morey.
"I regret, again having communicated directly with many friends in China, that so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans," Mr Silver added.
CCTV's announcement made clear that CCTV was referring to two annual NBA exhibition games in China, which this year pit the Los Angeles Lakers against the Brooklyn Nets. They are set to play in Shanghai on Thursday and in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen on Saturday.
CCTV made no mention of games in the upcoming regular season, nor did it give any further details on its plans to review all ties with the NBA.
The move by CCTV is the latest indication that the NBA may suffer significant damage in the hugely important Chinese market.
CCTV and Tencent Holdings - which streams NBA games in China - had already said they would halt plans to broadcast Rockets games, while major Chinese sponsors have also cut ties.
Sporting goods brand Li Ning and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPD Bank) Credit Card Centre have paused their deals with the Rockets. Sports forum Hupu said it has blocked all Rockets-related news, streaming and comments.
Brooklyn Nets players, executives and NBA officials were to appear at a publicity event at a Shanghai primary school on Tuesday afternoon, but the league abruptly cancelled it just two hours before it was to start, giving no explanation.
NBA representatives did not immediately respond to AFP queries about whether the Lakers-Nets contests would be cancelled.
The NBA has called Mr Morey's tweet regrettable but commissioner Silver on Monday insisted that the league supported his right to express his opinions.
"We are strongly dissatisfied with and oppose (Mr Silver's) comments in support of Morey's right to free expression," CCTV's statement said.
Before CCTV's announcement to suspend the exhibition games, celebrities and fans joined the backlash by saying that they would skip the exhibition games. Actress Wu Jinyan, who became popular for her leading role in the period drama Story of Yanxi Palace, was one of the celebrities advocating a boycott of the NBA's events this week.
"It is every Chinese citizen's undeniable responsibility and duty to resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity," Wu wrote on social-media platform Weibo. The actress wrote that she "opposes any comments or activities attempting to separate the country".
Others declining to attend the events included actors Bai Jingting, Li Yifeng and Zhou Yiwei as well as singer Zheng Yunlong.
"The love and feelings of Chinese sons and daughters have been rooted in this wide land for thousands of years," said Fan Chengcheng, the 19-year-old rapper who is also the younger brother of one of China's most well-known actresses, Fan Bingbing.
Stressing on his official Weibo account that he firmly advocates the "one China" principle, Fan wrote: "We will not allow anyone to trample on this or tear this apart."
The NBA is under pressure after Mr Morey tweeted an image of a slogan supporting Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters. "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong," Mr Morey said in the Twitter post.
While the message was quickly deleted, it sparked fury from supporters of China, casting a shadow on one of the country's favourite teams.
The damage was done, and the NBA quickly moved to smooth things over in a lucrative market that generates millions of dollars in revenue. The league said it was regrettable that many Chinese fans were offended by the comment.
The anger broadened beyond the Rockets to the entire league after Mr Silver tried to defend Mr Morey.
The issue is familiar to Hollywood studios, major companies and individual athletes chasing business in a country with 1.4 billion people, and the NBA's reaction reflects a corporate sensitivity towards China's low tolerance for criticism of its political system.
The league's statement, in turn, inflamed supporters of the Hong Kong protests and many fans in the United States, where the protesters are generally seen as battling a repressive government. Democratic and Republican politicians found agreement in calling the league gutless, accusing it of prioritising money over human rights.
Mr Morey's original tweet, which he later apologised for in a two-part post, was defended by Senator Ted Cruz who disagreed with the league's decision to back away from the comments.
"There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear," Mr Silver told Kyodo News. "There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have."
Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai - the first Chinese owner of an NBA franchise - said in a statement late Sunday that Hong Kong was a "third-rail issue" in China, calling the efforts by protesters a "separatist movement". (Most protesters deny they are interested in independence, but the Chinese state media has at times depicted them that way.)
Mr Tilman Fertitta, the owner of the Houston Rockets and Mr Morey's boss, publicly rebuked Mr Morey but said later that the general manager's job was not in danger.
The NBA is far from the first company to find itself forced to choose sides on geopolitical issues it never intended to be involved in, and to ultimately bow to China's economic might.
China is an attractive - and necessary - lure for nearly all global institutions, with an economy that while slowing, continues to grow at a pace that is the envy of many countries. Any threat to an ability to do business in China would have dire financial consequences for many multinational corporations.
As a result, many companies have apologised or made concessions after angering China. In many cases, the companies found themselves scrambling to respond to comments or Twitter posts made by executives or other employees that generate unwanted attention on social networks.
The stakes are particularly high for the NBA in China.
Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech conglomerate, reported that 490 million people watched NBA programming on its platforms last year, including 21 million fans who watched Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. By comparison, Nielsen measured 18.3 million viewers for the game on the American network ABC.
The league recently announced a five-year extension of its partnership with Tencent to stream its games in China for a reported US$1.5 billion (S$2.1 billion).
"This is a massive indicator for the perceived value and enormous potential of the China market," Mailman, a sports digital marketing agency, wrote in a recent report.
The NBA has been similarly successful on Chinese social media. The league has 41.8 million followers on Weibo, a popular Chinese social network, compared with 38.6 million followers on Facebook and 28.4 million on Twitter.
The involvement of the Rockets is particularly troublesome for the NBA, given the franchise's longtime status as among the most popular team in China. Yao Ming, considered the crown jewel of Chinese basketball, played for the Rockets from 2002 to 2011.
Yao is now the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which suspended its relationship with the Rockets. It also cancelled two NBA G League games scheduled for this month between affiliates of the Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks, said a person with knowledge of the decision who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Houston was the second-most-popular team in China behind the Golden State Warriors last year, according to Mailman. The team had 7.3 million followers on Weibo, compared with 2.9 million followers on Twitter.
James Harden, a Rockets guard and one of the NBA's biggest stars, directly apologised to Chinese fans on Monday.
"We apologise. We love China, we love playing there," he told reporters in Tokyo, where the Rockets were preparing for their preseason game. "We go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. We appreciate them as a fan base, and we love everything they're about, and we appreciate the support that they give us," said Harden.
In Hong Kong, meanwhile, some protest supporters see the NBA controversy as an opportunity to promote the cause. In discussions on LIHKG, a popular forum among protesters, some are proposing to wear Rockets gear together with gas masks at demonstrations.