Even by China’s heavily nationalistic standards, the reaction to a tweet this week has been extreme.
Basketball authorities and sponsors cutting ties.
State TV cancelling broadcasts.
A ‘meet the fans’ night with visiting NBA stars scuttled at short notice, much to the disappointment of fans.
Even a young social media user being forced by his employer to write a public apology letter for a post about a cartoon called the Rocket Squad.
The uproar over a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protestors from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is the sharpest sign yet that in China’s ‘New Era’ — as President Xi Jinping calls it — foreigners are expected to submit to its censorship rules if they want to do business.
In recent years, grovelling apologies have become the norm.
Online nationalists encouraged by government-owned media have made it a sport to target and troll foreign brands into submission, extracting a 21st-century form of a kowtow — an apology statement on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
Dozens of airlines including Qantas have been pressured into adopting Beijing’s demands on referring to the self-ruled island Taiwan as part of China.
Major brands like Dolce and Gabbana, Zara and even McDonalds have issued apologies for advertising campaigns deemed politically incorrect by the country’s patriots, who enjoy connecting dots and drawing conclusions to allege wrongdoing.
The American jeweller Tiffany fell afoul of their increasingly rigid standards this week, withdrawing an advertising campaign that online trolls deemed too similar to a Hong Kong protest image.
With mainland China driving its growing Asian sales, the company moved quickly to avoid any perception of political intent, no matter how dubious the claim.
In a sign of just how much nationalism now dominates public commentary, a small marathon company from the southern city of Guangzhou issued a public apology letter on its public WeChat account.
A young employee had posted a message of support for the ‘Rockets team’, but posted a picture of an animated cartoon called Rocket Team — either as a joke or an innocent mistake.
‘His inappropriate comments have brought a negative influence to our company,” his boss wrote before apologising.
Much of the patriotic sentiment appears organic, but China’s government under Mr Xi has been keen to play up jingoistic sentiment, particularly during the Hong Kong unrest and as China’s diplomatic ties with nations like Australia, Canada and the US have frayed.
But going all-in on the NBA — a sports organisation that has previously expressed support for ‘woke’ social progressive movements in the US — is a major test of how much economic sway China now has.
With the Chinese market bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcast and merchandise revenue each year to the NBA, Beijing is betting it can set a precedent by forcing one of the world’s biggest sports leagues to impose Chinese censorship standards.
“Free speech should be respected and honoured on certain conditions,” a sports communication researcher Hong Jianping was quoted saying to state-owned China Daily.
It echoed comments from state broadcaster CCTV that ‘challenges to national sovereignty’ can’t be included in American ‘free speech’.
But amid the nationalist pile on, signs of unease.
Hu Xijin, a state newspaper editor best known for stoking nationalist sentiment, backed the hard-line actions against the NBA … but suggested they don’t “become a trend” during a time of increasing pushback in the US towards China.
“We should be powerful and firm but not push this matter to an unnecessary extreme”, he wrote.
Despite grovelling apologies, the NBA’s commissioner Adam Silver is holding firm — defending the right of individuals involved in the NBA to express their own opinions.
A rare case of a foreign organisation putting some values ahead of profits … for now at least.