The Houston Rockets and China's hurt feelings

Tweet supported Hong Kong protests . . . 

Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Houston Rockets, posted a message on Twitter on Friday in support of the Hong Kong protests. The tweet, although quickly deleted, caused anger in China and the Chinese Basketball Association suspended co-operation with the team for "improper remarks regarding Hong Kong." The NBA went into full damage control over the weekend. Morey, some players, the owner of the Houston Rockets, and even the NBA, through its spokesperson, apologized to China for the remarks. While the statement may have appeased some on the Chinese side, it caused anger at home, with accusations that the NBA is prioritizing profits over human rights and even becoming an arm of Chinese censorship.

China’s importance to the NBA . . .

For the Houston Rockets and the NBA as a whole, losing access to the Chinese market could be disastrous. The NBA is the most popular sports league in China, representing a huge and growing market that the NBA has nurtured since the 1990s. NBA China is now worth more than US$4B. It is not clear whether the 500 million Chinese basketball fans would have actually boycotted the NBA and the Rockets in the absence of an apology, but with so much revenue at stake, the NBA was quick to apologize.

Orwellian nonsense or the new normal?

The Rockets’ current dust-up with China is not an isolated event. In recent years, many businesses, from airline companies to clothing lines, have had to backtrack from ‘‘improper remarks’’ that angered China. Canada, France, and Norway, for example, have also been victims of events outside of their immediate control that have angered China, and as a result they have suffered from substantial economic boycotts. With China now on the offensive over any comments or actions it deems improper, and with the looming threat of economic boycotts, foreign companies face the new risk of getting on the wrong side of China.