SHANGHAI/BEIJING • Chinese state media yesterday accused the United States' 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 the authorities in China, threatening a business said to be worth more than US$4 billion (S$5.5 billion) in a country where about 500 million fans consume NBA content.
Mr Morey deleted the tweet and apologised on Monday, but Chinese broadcasters, sportswear firms and sponsors say they are reviewing their ties with the NBA, which has had a presence in China since 1992.
The NBA initially described the anger over Mr Morey's post as regrettable, drawing criticism from US politicians, who accused the league of putting its China business ahead of free speech.
But NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Tuesday said it was not up to the league to regulate what players, employees and team owners said.
Yesterday, an editorial in the 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".
"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 official newspaper said.
The protests were "a bid to liberate the city" and "a secessionist pipe dream" peddled by demonstrators "to justify their summer hooliganism", the editorial added.
The protests, sparked by opposition to a now withdrawn Bill allowing extradition to mainland China, have since evolved into broader calls for democracy.
The Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily newspaper, said 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.
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.
The fallout from Mr Morey's tweet has now led to the NBA losing almost all of its major Chinese sponsors in the country, its biggest market outside the US.
Dongfeng Motor, Nissan's joint venture, has halted its cooperation with the NBA, and the Mengniu Group, which owns a dairy company and is a long-time NBA marketing partner, said it "resolutely opposes all words and deeds that challenge China's national sovereignty and endanger China's social stability". Anta Sports Products, a rising sportswear and sneaker firm that signs NBA stars as brand ambassadors, said Mr Morey's tweet was wrong. Smartphone maker Vivo said it was pulling out, while Master Kong, a maker of instant noodles and beverages, said it has ended all NBA-linked marketing activities.
Luckin Coffee, a local rival to Starbucks, also suspended all cooperation with the NBA's local events. Ctrip.com International, an online travel agent, said on its Weibo account that it was removing all tickets and products related to the NBA from its website.
A "fan night" planned for last evening, featuring NBA players and Chinese pop stars, was cancelled. The local celebrities had decided to pull out of the event earlier this week.
And state television CCTV and tech giant Tencent Holdings said on Tuesday they would not show NBA's pre-season games.
"Beijing takes a zero-tolerance attitude to any perceived foreign interference in its internal affairs," said Mr Hugo Brennan, principal Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. "This explains why it is adopting such a hardline stance."