SHANGHAI (REUTERS) - Chinese state media on Wednesday (Oct 9) accused the US National Basketball Association (NBA) of endorsing violence and peddling a "secessionist pipe dream" as a row escalates over comments by a leading team official in support of protests in Hong Kong.
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey apologised on Monday for a Twitter post over the weekend backing the Hong Kong protests. The comment, which was quickly deleted, sparked anger in China, and broadcasters, sportswear companies and sponsors said they would review their relationship with the league.
The NBA initially described the anger over the message as "regrettable", but commissioner Adam Silver told a news conference in Japan on Tuesday that it was not up to the NBA to regulate what players, employees and team owners said.
On Wednesday, an editorial in the official English-language China Daily accused Mr Silver of "brazenly endorsing Morey's secessionist-supporting tweet" and giving "a shot to the arms of the rioters of Hong Kong".
It said: "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."
The protests were "a bid to liberate the city" and "a secessionist pipe-dream" peddled by demonstrators "to justify their summer hooliganism", it added.
The state-owned Global Times tabloid accused Mr 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 netizens had made "disrespectful comments" about the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
"(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 US 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 US$4 billion (S$5.53 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" is still set to proceed as scheduled, despite a boycott by Chinese celebrities.
Chinese state television has already cancelled plans to air exhibition games played in China this week, saying in a statement that a country's sovereignty and social stability were "not within the scope of freedom of speech".
Chinese online travel agency Ctrip 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.
China has accused Western governments of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, which has been roiled by months of sometimes-violent protests.