President Trump and lawmakers in both parties have focused their ire on the NBA, not China, amid this week’s spat over Hong Kong protesters and freedom of speech, boosting pressure on the league to defy Beijing’s attempts to stifle criticism.
Despite the deep suspicion of China shared by both parties, Trump and lawmakers have united in scorn toward the NBA, blasting the league’s conciliatory response to China’s umbrage over a pro-Hong Kong tweet sent and quickly deleted by the Houston Rockets’ general manager.
Under mounting pressure from Washington, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has taken a stronger stance in defiance of Beijing. Even so, some of basketball’s most politically active voices have demurred on the issue as the NBA maneuvers behind the scenes to quash it.
Democrats and Republicans have blistered the NBA for appearing to accommodate China, uniting over a useful foe for vastly different electoral bases.
Attacking the NBA allows Democrats to criticize a major U.S. corporation for putting profit over principle, while Republicans can blast a league known for its outspoken stances on LGBT rights, criminal justice and gun control.
Trump, who is in the midst of high-stakes trade negotiations with Beijing, also took questions about the controversy as an opportunity to lash out at NBA coaches.
All together, the common message from Washington has been clear: If the NBA wants Chinese money, it must stand up for American values.
“We’ve got enough troubles, enough problems with China, the second largest economy in the world. We got to learn to get along with them,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), in a Thursday interview with The Hill.
“But we will not bend over.”
As economic and foreign policy tensions between the U.S. and China soar, the NBA has sought to expand its lucrative presence in China, where the league’s popularity has skyrocketed throughout the decade.
The NBA’s quest to capitalize in China ran afoul of the ruling Communist Party last week ahead of a series of games in Japan and China when a tweet from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey prompted a Chinese boycott of the league.
Morey last Friday tweeted, then deleted, a picture declaring “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong,” voicing support for demonstrations against Beijing’s attempts to expand control over the semi-autonomous region.
The tweet drew an immediate condemnation from the Chinese government, forcing several Chinese businesses and media outlets to blacklist, censor, and cut ties with the Rockets or NBA all together.
As the NBA sought to temper anger in China, it only spurred more backlash in the U.S.
The league first responded with a widely criticized Monday statement expressing its regrets to offended Chinese fans, and then enraged lawmakers with a stronger statement in Mandarin condemning Morey.
“The main issue is that they’re trying to have it both ways,” said Michael Gordan, principal the Gordon Group, a corporate communications firm in New York.
“Truthfully, they’re making everybody unhappy right now,” Gordon continued. “For a league that really has been arguably the leader in terms of progressive social issues, the fact that they’re not going more full throated on China is why people are so upset.”
A subsequent statement from Silver digging in on freedom of expression did nothing to quell backlash across the political spectrum.
“It is outrageous that the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic power to suppress the speech of Americans inside the United States,” wrote a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers in a Wednesday letter to Silver.
“It is also outrageous that the NBA has caved to Chinese government demands for contrition.”
The lawmakers urged Silver to suspend the NBA’s activities in China until Beijing ends its boycott of the Rockets, one day before the league kicked off a series of games in Shanghai and Shenzhou.
The conflict has emboldened some China hawks to push for greater restraints on U.S. commerce and involvement in the country.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who has fiercely criticized Silver, declared China “the greatest threat we face in the next century” in a Wednesday op-ed for the Miami Herald. He urged “Americans to understand that when they buy products made in China, they are supporting a Communist, a human-rights violator.”
But there’s been little movement behind legislation or efforts to curb Beijing’s censorial behavior, even as Trump expands economic penalties on China for its oppression of Muslim minority groups.
“Maybe people just presume that of course China’s the bad guy here,” said James Carafano, a former Trump transition official and fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“But I think it’s a fair question,” Carafano continued. “Shouldn’t we really be complaining about Chinese behavior, because we talk about [intellectual property] theft, and non-tariff barriers and unfair practices, but essentially China is bullying a company.”
Trump and several Republicans have instead focused on the relative silence on the issue from NBA players and coaches known to rebuke the president and his policies. The president singled out Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, two prominent critics of his, for their evasive answers about China.
“They have to work out their own situation. The NBA is, they know what they’re doing,” Trump said Wednesday. “But I watched the way that, like, Kerr and Popovich and some of the others were pandering to China. And yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it.”
Trump met Friday at the White House with a Chinese delegation as part of the second-day of trade negotiations. The issue of Hong Kong has loomed over talks, but the president has been reluctant to use bipartisan frustration over the issue to cajole Beijing on trade.
He has been muted in his support for the protesters, commenting on their “tremendous signage” but largely avoiding their basic demands. CNN reported that he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during a call in June that he would keep quiet about the Hong Kong protests while trade talks were ongoing.
Trump sat across from Vice Premier Liu He on Friday in the Oval Office and announced an agreement on “phase one” on a trade agreement. He told reporters that the two discussed Hong Kong prior to the announcement and suggested tensions there had “toned down” even as demonstrations persist.
“I think that’s going to take care of itself,” Trump said of the dispute. “I actually think this deal is a great deal for the people of Hong Kong to see what happened. I think this is a very positive thing for Hong Kong.”
While China has taken some steps to tone down the controversy at home, the NBA’s efforts to ease its anger have only drawn more attention to the issue.
The league was forced to apologize Thursday to a CNN journalist after an NBA spokeswoman shut down her question to two Houston Rockets players about whether they’d refrain from speaking out on politics due to the controversy.