The NBA has insisted it backs free speech, after US politicians accused it of caving to China in a row over a pro-democracy tweet that has cost the Houston Rockets lucrative Chinese sponsors and airtime.

The public relations crisis erupted on Friday when the Houston Rockets’ general manager posted a tweet backing protesters in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city of Hong Kong who are demanding greater freedoms.

Daryl Morey
Daryl Morey. Photo: Wikicommons.

China, which allows no dissent on the sensitive issue, immediately sought to punish the Rockets, with state-run TV cutting its games and Chinese sponsors abandoning the team.

The NBA initially put out statements that senior US politicians slammed as bowing to China for financial reasons, while Rockets star guard James Harden apologised.

But in his first public comments on the controversy, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver insisted his organisation supported the right of Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to express his opinions.

“I think as a values-based organization that I want to make it clear… that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” Silver told Japan’s Kyodo News agency late Monday.

“There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression,” he added, speaking in Japan, where the Rockets and Toronto Raptors play several exhibition games this week.

october 6 protest
Hong Kong Island. Photo: May James / HKFP.

Silver also addressed the financial impacts for the Rockets and the NBA in the Chinese market, its most lucrative outside of the United States.

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” he said.

“There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet.”

 NBA defends ‘free expression’ 

The NBA’s initial statement in English on the furore said it was “regrettable” that Morey’s views had “offended so many of our friends and fans in China”.

A Chinese-language version of the statement went further, saying the organisation was “deeply disappointed by the inappropriate remarks”.

NBA spokesman Mike Bass sought to downplay the Chinese-language statement.

“We have seen various interpretations of the translation of the Mandarin version, but our statement in English is the league’s official statement,” he said.

But even the English-language version of the NBA’s statement was widely criticised in the United States, where presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, a Texan, deemed it an “embarrassment.

 ‘A gag rule’ 

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, also accused the NBA of throwing Morey “under the bus” to “protect (the) NBA’s market access in China.”

Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio. Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.

“This is bigger than just the @NBA. It’s about #China’s growing ability to restrict freedom of expression here in the US,” he added in a series of tweets.

And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, warned “no one should implement a gag rule on Americans speaking out for freedom”.

Silver, who heads to China this week with other top NBA top brass, said the furore was evidence that “words truly do matter.”

“I accept that it is also (the) Chinese government’s and Chinese businesses’ right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues.”

Hong Kong has been battered by four months of increasingly violent pro-democracy protests sparked by opposition to a now-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditions of criminal suspects to China.

The protests are fuelled by fears China is strangling the freedoms enshrined under the “one country, two systems” framework for Hong Kong that has been in place since its handover from the British in 1997.

Throughout the unrest China has sought to use its political and financial muscle to pressure major firms into publicly supporting its position.

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific was heavily pressured in a campaign led by state-run media after Chinese authorities deemed the airline’s staff too vocal in their support of the protesters.

The airline’s then-chairman John Slosar initially insisted he would not dream of telling his staff what to think, but Chinese threats to blacklist the carrier forced a U-turn and Slosar stepped down last month.

Cathay Pacific now warns its staff against supporting the protests.

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