BEIJING/TOKYO (Reuters) - Chinese state television said on Tuesday it would not air NBA exhibition games played in the country this week, heaping pressure on the U.S. basketball league after a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive backing protests in Hong Kong.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey apologised on Monday for any hurt caused by the tweet, which he quickly deleted over the weekend.
But China’s government, fans and the team’s partners have not been assuaged, resulting in loss of sponsors and broadcasts in the world’s second-largest economy and an important National Basketball Association (NBA) market.
“We strongly oppose Silver’s support of Morey on the basis of freedom of speech and we think any comments that challenge a country’s sovereignty and social stability is not within the scope of freedom of speech,” CCTV said Tuesday in a statement in Chinese, adding that it would review its relationship with the NBA.
The NBA issued a statement saying it regretted Morey’s remarks, drawing criticism from U.S. lawmakers.
But commissioner Adam Silver said it was not up to the NBA to regulate what players, employees and team owners said.
“It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in a statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
Months of anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong have angered Beijing, which has accused Western governments of stirring up anti-China sentiment. China rejects outside intervention in Hong Kong as interference.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang referred to criticism of Morey’s comment by the Chinese Basketball Association, which he said made China’s position “very clear”.
“I suggest they pay attention to the reaction of the ordinary Chinese people,” Geng told a regular briefing.
Exchanges and cooperation would not work if people failed to understand public opinion and China would take “firm and powerful measures to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security”, he said.
The NBA’s regular season, to which CCTV owns exclusive Chinese broadcast rights, begins this month.
Tech giant Tencent Holdings has exclusive internet streaming rights in China, which media reports have said are worth about $1.58 billion. It has said it would temporarily stop showing Rockets games.
The decision heaps pressure on the league, which faces criticism on multiple fronts about its handling of the controversy. Its apology on Sunday disappointed some who see the league as the most progressive of the U.S. sports organizations, while Silver’s support for Morey’s right to speak his mind has left the league vulnerable in China.
The league has worked for years to cultivate the Chinese market and regularly plays exhibition games there. Its top stars, including Rockets guard James Harden, frequently visit to meet fans and take part in promotions with sponsors.
Tencent said in July that 490 million Chinese fans watched NBA programming on its platforms last season, up threefold since the 2014-2015 season.
Silver told Kyodo in an interview the league’s stance was firm, that members of the NBA community were free to express themselves and that the league backed their right to do so.
“There are the values that have been part of this league from its earliest days, and that includes free expression,” said Silver, who was in Japan for a pre-season game between the Rockets and the Toronto Raptors.
“I think as a values-based organisation that I want to make it clear ... that Daryl Morey is supported in terms of his ability to exercise his freedom of expression,” he told the news agency.
“I accept that it is also Chinese government’s and Chinese businesses’ right to react to those words and, at least from my long-time experience in the NBA, it will take some time to heal some of these issues.”
Silver said the league also supported Brooklyn Nets owner and Alibaba Group co-founder Joseph Tsai, who issued a lengthy statement criticising Morey’s tweet.
A pre-season game between the Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers is set for Thursday in Shanghai, with a rematch scheduled for Saturday in Shenzhen. However, organisers abruptly cancelled a Tuesday media event without explanation.
Several Chinese celebrities also announced they would not attend an NBA-organised “fans’ night” on Wednesday.
“The motherland always stands above everything,” actor and singer Evan Li said in a statement.
Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Additional reporting by David Stanway, Samuel Shen and the Shanghai and Beijing Newsrooms; Writing by Se Young Lee and Robert Birsel; Editing by Gerry Doyle and Alex Richardson