Thousands of Chinese basketball fans, many waving national flags, jammed a Shanghai sports stadium on Thursday night to see two NBA teams face off in a preseason game as a row puts the American league’s future in China in jeopardy.
The 18,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Arena was at near capacity for the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets, an event that went ahead despite a furore over a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey last week in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
Thursday’s National Basketball Association game also came on the eve of a new round of China-US trade talks in Washington, with negotiators looking for an end to the year-long dispute that has cast a long shadow over the world’s economy.
In his first public comment on the NBA controversy, US President Donald Trump criticised those who “were pandering” to China.
“They have to work out their own situation. The NBA, they know what they’re doing,” Trump said.
Also on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned American companies of the risks of doing business in China.
“It may seem that it makes profits in the short run, but the reputational costs … will prove to be higher and higher as Beijing’s long arm reaches out to them and destroys their capacity for them, their employees – in the NBA’s case, team members and general managers – to speak freely about their political opinion,” Pompeo said on PBS NewsHour.
Morey’s now-deleted tweet, including an image in support of ongoing protests in Hong Kong, said: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”.
It prompted a backlash in Chinese media and online, and resulted in the Chinese Basketball Association and several companies suspending cooperation with the Rockets.
State broadcaster CCTV and tech giant Tencent also cancelled a planned live broadcast of the game.
Despite the uproar, Chinese authorities did not call off the event on Thursday and there was a noticeable scaling down of criticism in official media. A second game between the two teams planned for Shenzhen on Saturday will go ahead as planned.
The Nets beat the Lakers 114-111.
The NBA has a huge following in mainland China, with more than 180 million social media followers. Tencent said 490 million Chinese viewers watched the NBA’s 2018-19 season. According to a report by Fortune magazine last year, the NBA’s business in China was worth more than US$4 billion.
Tickets for the Shanghai game sold out weeks in advance and some scalpers asked for as much as 3,000 yuan (US$420) per ticket – about four times the original price – at the stadium on Thursday.
Wang Qingshan, a Lakers fan, said he backed the government over basketball. “I love China more than my own life, I would die for my country,” he said.
Wang said he would not watch any more Houston Rockets games but he would still follow other NBA teams.
Li Qingchen, another Lakers fan in his 40s, said the NBA should apologise for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people. “NBA officials should apologise for making remarks that undermine our national sovereignty,” Li said.
David Qiu, a 22-year-old university student, said he bought his ticket months ago and felt “obliged to come”.
“But I would be embarrassed to share photos or video clips [of the game] on social media now that there is so much outrage online [about the NBA],” he said.
Other fans said Morey was entitled to have his views.
“I came for LeBron James. He did not make the remarks. Besides, I think there’s nothing wrong with Daryl Morey expressing his opinion,” Jin Lin, a 28-year-old white-collar worker, said.
Earlier in the day, some users on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, called on fans to boycott the game. “You can keep chasing your idol. But please don’t be silly. Please keep rational in front of national interest,” one Weibo user wrote.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to requests to comment on the row by saying China remained open to US businesses.
“What I want to emphasise is that China will, as always, welcome foreign companies, including US companies, to invest,” he said.
China had been one of the most popular destinations for global investment, Geng said, adding that “according to the latest survey data I have seen, 97 per cent of surveyed US companies made profits in China, and 74 per cent of the members of the American Chamber of Commerce in China plan to expand investment in China”.
“Are these American companies forced to give up their values? Have they been manipulated by the Chinese?” he said.
“Our policy of creating a sound environment for investment by foreign companies in China will not change, and the policy of protecting the legitimate rights and interests of foreign companies in China will not change.”
He said mutual respect should be the condition for exchanges and cooperation between China and other nations.
Additional reporting by Keegan Elmer
More from South China Morning Post:
- NBA commissioner Adam Silver: ‘We will protect our employees’ freedom of speech’
- NBA in damage-control mode as more Chinese partners cut ties in Hong Kong protest tweet storm
- NBA teams close doors in China as Daryl Morey tweet firestorm continues and fans show little sympathy
- Houston Rockets’ Daryl Morey ‘meant no offence’ with Hong Kong protests tweet – but angry Chinese demand more