The NBA’s swift apology to Chinese fans for a single tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors is part of a troubling trend: The Communist Party in Beijing is setting boundaries for what Americans more than 7,000 miles away are willing to say on sensitive issues.
Why it matters: This isn't a covert operation. It's China using its market power to bully American companies and organizations in broad daylight — and muzzle free speech.
"When it has to do with market access in China and profits ... they will bend over backwards to apologize," says Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
- The big picture: U.S. companies are increasingly weighing in on social and political issues at home. But when it comes to China — in particular to Hong Kong or to mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang — they’re silent.
The latest: An image that Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey tweeted — then quickly deleted — that backed Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests kicked off a firestorm in China.
- Both Morey and the NBA backtracked after offending Chinese fans. But the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association and multiple Chinese businesses have severed ties with the Rockets, reports Axios' Kendall Baker.
- Hanging in the balance is an NBA-Tencent streaming deal worth billions, the support of millions of Chinese fans and Morey's job.
Kia Kokalitcheva and Sara Fischer at Axios:
- Video game company Activision Blizzard, which is partly owned by Chinese company Tencent, censored a professional player and rescinded his competition prize money after he expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters.
- The Chinese government also banned (and virtually scrubbed from its domestic internet) the animated show "South Park" after its latest episode criticized the country's censorship.
Before these Hong Kong protests, the most visible flashpoint has been Taiwan. Airlines quickly caved to Chinese demands to change drop-down menus and maps to read "Taiwan, China" rather than simply "Taiwan." Taiwan is a self-ruled democracy that Beijing insists be treated as part of mainland China. China's aviation authority demands Hong Kong and Macau must also be clearly labeled as part of China.
But the companies themselves rarely stand against the Chinese government: Gap (GPS) last year apologized for a T-shirt with a map of China that did not include Taiwan. Tech blogs noticed this week that Apple is hiding the Taiwan flag from its emoji keyboard for users whose iOS settings are Hong Kong or Macau. Last year, a Marriott (MAR) employee was quickly fired, and Marriott apologized, for liking a social media post about Tibet.
It goes beyond just swallowing your democratic principles to sell T-shirts or plane tickets. It's a major concern for China hawks who say the regime uses American technology at odds with American human rights standards — say, to track Hong Kong protestors or to monitor and detain Muslim minorities in the remote Northwest of the country.