A now-deleted Tweet from the Houston Rockets' general manager, in which he voiced support for Hong Kong protesters, set off an international incident between China and the NBA this weekend. Now, the Brooklyn Nets' Joe Tsai, who is one of the NBA's newest owners and a China-made billionaire, has stepped in to offer a Chinese history lesson and explain why supporting the protesters is a bad (economic) idea.
On Friday, Rockets' GM Daryl Morey tweeted an image that said, "Stand with Hong Kong," referring to the months-long protests where Hong Kong residents are arguing for more freedoms as China tries to exert more controls. (Hong Kong is a "special administrative region" of China, with separate legal system from China until at least 2047, a deal brokered by the British government, which had ruled Hong Kong from 1898 until 1997.) The tweet prompted outrage from basketball fans in mainland China as well as from Chinese businesses. The Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is beloved former Rocket Yao Ming, said it would not do business with the Rockets anymore, while a shoe company and credit card holder said they were pausing their partnerships with the team. Also, Rockets games will not be broadcast anymore there as well.
The protests in Hong Kong have become increasingly violent, with Chinese police regularly using tear and firing at protesters. Outside of Hong Kong, there have been solidarity rallies and "Lennon Walls" in support of protesters, attracting pro-Beijing factions as well.
Morey deleted his tweet and later apologized, saying he didn't understand the issue and adding, "My tweets are my own and in no way represent the Rockets or the NBA."
The NBA also made clear it had nothing to do with Morey's point of view, though it's totally cool to have an opinion:
Besides the Rockets' owner Tilman Fertitta disavowing Morey's original tweet, the team's star James Harden also apologized, telling reporters, "We apologize. You know, we love China. We love playing there. For both of us individually, we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most important love."
NBA Commission Adam Silver also said, "There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear. There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have."
Tsai, who completed his purchase of the Nets last month, posted a long "open letter" on his Facebook page, acknowledging that freedom of expression is "an inherent American value" and noting that while NBA has "been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues," understanding Chinese feelings about Hong Kong is way too complicated for anyone to offer support to protesters, whose effort is called a "separatist" movement:
Open letter to all NBA fans:
When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn’t expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened.
By now you have heard that Chinese fans have reacted extremely negatively to a tweet put out by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of protests in Hong Kong.
The Rockets, who by far had been the favorite team in China, are now effectively shut out of the Chinese market as fans abandon their love for the team, broadcasters refuse to air their games and Chinese corporates pull sponsorships in droves.
Fans in China are calling for an explanation – if they are not getting it from the Houston Rockets, then it is natural that they ask others associated with the NBA to express a view.
The NBA is a fan-first league. When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up.
What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues.
The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.
Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.
The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.
A bit of historical perspective is important. In the mid-19th century, China fought two Opium Wars with the British, aided by the French, who forced through illegal trade of opium to China. A very weak Qing Dynasty government lost the wars and the result was the ceding of Hong Kong to the British as a colony.
The invasion of Chinese territories by foreign forces continued against a weak and defenseless Qing government, which precipitated in the Boxer Rebellion by Chinese peasants at the turn of the 20th century. In response, the Eight Nations Alliance – comprised of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary – dispatched their forces to occupy Chinese territories in the name of humanitarian intervention. The foreign forces marched into the Chinese capital Peking (now called Beijing), defeated the peasant rebels and proceeded to loot and pillage the capital city.
In 1937, Japan invaded China by capturing Beijing, Shanghai and the then-Chinese capital Nanjing. Imperial Japanese troops committed mass murder and rape against the residents of Nanjing, resulting in several hundred thousand civilian deaths. The war of resistance by the Chinese against Japan ended after tens of millions of Chinese casualties, and only after America joined the war against Japan post-Pearl Harbor.
I am going into all of this because a student of history will understand that the Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories.
When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation.
By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China. I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.
I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China. I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.
Sincerely, Joe Tsai
Tsai, a Canadian citizen who was educated in the United States, is the executive vice chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant.
The Brooklyn Nets happen to be playing the Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai this week.
In other "China bans" news, South Park has been banned as well: "After the 'Band in China' episode mocked Hollywood for shaping its content to please the Chinese government, Beijing has responded by deleting all clips, episodes and discussions of the Comedy Central show."