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The NBA-China Twitter Feud Represents a New Era of US-China Contestation

19 Nov 2019
By Oliver Lees
LeBron James of the Houston Rockets. Photo by Keith Allison, Wikimedia. Source:

A Twitter storm over basketball is representative of the hostility present in the US-China relationship today, where a rapidly changing political landscape has made conflict the new normal.

On 4 October 2019, a single tweet by the General Manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets franchise triggered an enraged reaction from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its supporters. Daryl Morey’s politically charged statement, “Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong” was met with immediate political and economic backlash, with China’s state run news demanding Morey’s immediate resignation, as well as China’s largest NBA broadcasters — Tencent Holdings and CCTV — suspending all future Houston Rockets games. Equally in the United States (US), the league has been criticised for grovelling to Chinese demands, with a public apology from the NBA to China suggesting the league prioritised its financial stake in China over its support for freedom of expression. The dramatic fallout from this singular expression of political opinion represents the fragile and antagonistic relationship that exists between the US and China, where opposing forces of capital and political ideology meet in increasingly hostile and consequential instances.

The NBA has been enormously popular in China since the country opened its economy to the world in the late 1970s, when the state finally allowed the world’s most populous country access to external influence. Today, China represents the league’s biggest foreign market, with millions of fans, lucrative sponsorship deals, viewing rights, and exhibition matches bringing the league billions in revenue.

At its core, the image and underlying ideology of the NBA is antithetical to the Communist Party. As NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver has run the league proudly as a values-based organisation, where the league’s star players often use their platform to address issues of political significance. Lebron James, the league’s biggest star, campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her race for the presidency in 2016, and has been a consistent presence in debates surrounding race relations within the United States. In 2018, FOX News reporter Laura Ingraham infamously told James to “shut up and dribble” in response to James’ criticism of President Trump, to which James replied via Instagram, “I Am More Than An Athlete.” This statement is symbolic of the NBA’s progressive political attitude, where its players and representatives are powerful agents in driving progressive political discourse. In this sense the NBA is a microcosm of US ideological underpinnings, which are based on the fundamental tenets of liberalism, and notably, freedom of expression.

Despite this, the NBA is a business, and has demonstrated that its values are not impervious to external pressure. Lebron James represents this contradiction in practice. Where previously James has provided a moral compass on social issues within the US, James has publically distanced himself from Morey’s tweet, describing his comments as “uneducated” in an attempt to save face with his Chinese fans. Equally, the league has come under fire for its immediate response to the tweet. Issuing an apology in both English and Mandarin, the league has been criticised for discrepancies in the tone of the two apologies, with the Mandarin version interpreted as considerably more apologetic than its English equivalent. Silver has since clarified the league’s position, doubling down on its support of Morey’s right to express himself freely.

Daryl Morey’s tweet meets at this complex crossroads, where economic opportunity and political ideology continue to clash in the US-China bilateral relationship. For months, Hong Kongers have taken to the streets to voice their concerns about what they see as a gradual encroachment upon their civil liberties by the CCP. Currently Hong Kong is administered under China’s “One Country, Two Systems,” where the administrative regions of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau operate under de facto independence, whilst technically remaining Chinese territory. The CCP continues to defend its position to its domestic audience, using its media to characterise the protesters as reckless vigilantes determined to undermine the stability of the state.

That the CCP is using its monopoly on domestic media to control the popular narrative of the Hong Kong protests is not surprising given the state’s one-party stronghold and history of censorship. However, the attempted assertion of this control beyond its borders is a recently emergent trend of Xi Jinping’s China, one that can be seen in sharp contrast to the “Peaceful Rise” under previous Party Chairman Hu Jintao. The NBA is not alone in having to deal with the changing dynamics of Chinese politics in a business context. Canada Goose, a high-end fashion brand was forced to delay the opening of its store in China as tensions bubbled over the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou. In October Tiffany & Co issued a formal apology and removed an advertisement after online backlash from netizens suggesting the model was posing in solidarity with Hong Kong protesters.

These are all hallmark signs of a bilateral relationship that has become rife with political flashpoints. The indiscreet rhetoric of Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has come into direct conflict with Xi’s China on several occasions. Beginning with a string of tariffs imposed by the US, the two states have been locked in an 18 month long trade war. Despite repeated attempts to broker a solution, both parties have dug in, refusing to compromise.

If Morey’s tweet is representative of anything, it’s that within the contested space between Xi’s China and Trump’s US, conflict is the new normal. As both states become firmer in their rhetoric, and more defensive in their foreign policy, the already embattled relationship faces a turbulent future, likely with implications much bigger than basketball.

Oliver Lees is a current student at Sichuan University in Chengdu, where he is continuing his Mandarin studies. Oliver graduated from La Trobe University in 2018 with a Bachelor of International Relations and a Diploma of Languages in Mandarin. Oliver’s email address is 

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