I distinctly remember the first time I felt a twinge of Chinese pride. Not of pride in being from Hong Kong — which I already felt — but pride in the achievements of the People’s Republic of China. Of the mainland.
I was in a theatre in Vancouver, staring up at the screen in awe. There was the largest man I had ever seen, bounding around Americans and making them look like flustered children, casually dunking basketballs into the hoop like he was reaching for a jar of pickles in the kitchen.
It was 2004 and “The Year of the Yao” was in theatres worldwide.
The seven-foot-six Chinese basketball phenom Yao Ming, who played his entire NBA career for the Houston Rockets, proved to be an absolute cash cow for the NBA because his success was a key reason for the popularity of the sport exploding in China.
This week, China’s passion for basketball was on full display — as was the sight of an authoritarian regime flexing its muscle and going on offence.
On Friday, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, shared an image on his personal Twitter account that read: “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” Chinese basketball officials swiftly broke off relations with the Rockets, Chinese companies cancelled multimillion-dollar deals and the NBA has forced Morey to apologize and issued an apology of its own.
Critics denounced the grovelling apologies as a bastardization of the West’s purported free speech ideals. This could be a turning point in which Chinese money has inexorably brought capitalist democracies to its knees, they said.
In point of fact, this isn’t new. We’ve seen it before, with major international companies from airlines to luxury fashion brands to jewelry companies apologizing for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people recently for offences such as listing Hong Kong or Taiwan as separate countries on their websites. And on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that video games maker Activision Blizzard had kicked a Hong Kong esports pro out of a tournament and after he voiced support for Hong Kong’s protesters.
But in the case of the NBA dust-up, the feelings of the Chinese people seem particularly crushed.
Why? Because China loves it some basketball — and, as a result, there are billions of dollars and more at stake.
In the most recent NBA season, half a billion people in China tuned in to watch games. Tencent, a huge Chinese tech company, paid as much as $1.5 billion (U.S.) for the right to stream the season, according to Lanxiong Sports, an online Chinese sports publication.
There are many theories online about why the game stokes such passion in China. American missionaries may have brought the sport to mainland China in the late 1890s. The team sport didn’t require much space or equipment to play and it quickly spread across the country. In 1936, the Chinese fielded its first Olympic basketball team. The Chinese army has been playing basketball for decades as a way to foster a sense of teamwork and competition among troops.
There is even cultural folklore around the benefits of basketball. My parents firmly believed that the constant jumping and stretching involved in the sport made children grow up tall and strong, so in between piano lessons, math tutorials and Cantonese lessons, they prioritized basketball as a family activity. My dad was my first community youth league basketball coach.
This week, I searched the word “Morey” on Weibo, the Twitter-like blogging platform in China, and it returned thousands of results.
One commenter wrote: “Hong Kong has been China’s since ancient times! I’ll never watch another Rockets game in this life! I won’t support any Rockets star! Never welcome Rockets to China! Really angry!”
And then for good measure, the commenter wrote in English: “Morey, you suck.”
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On the other hand, the Rockets still have some loyal fans in China, with one distraught fan reportedly arrested in China’s Jilin province. A 25-year-old man surnamed Wang posted a photo on Weibo showing him in a James Harden Rockets jersey holding a Chinese flag in one hand and a lighter in the other, along with the caption: “I live and die with my team. Come and catch me.” On Monday morning, the city of Liaoyuan announced that Wang was arrested for insulting China’s national flag.
If Beijing tries to ban the NBA completely, like it bans so many things from Instagram to Facebook to couples having more than two children, would China’s sports fans stay patriotic, or would the move lead to some serious social instability? I don’t know.
When I first moved to Beijing to work as a foreign correspondent five years ago, I made my first local friends from joining a pickup basketball group. Some of these friends are now angrily posting on Chinese social media about Morey’s tweet. News of the offending post had quickly spread in China despite Twitter being banned there.
It is important to remember that most people in China only have access to a highly-skewed version of events in Hong Kong. Many believe the state media line that protesters are violent rioters who advocate for separatism. Meanwhile, independence from the mainland isn’t even one of the protesters’ widely-circulated five demands.
This isn’t an obligatory outpouring of criticism to score political points. Millions of Chinese basketball fans seem seriously distressed. They love basketball and the NBA so much, and now they feel as though the NBA has betrayed them.
The tweet roiled not just the authoritarian regime that’s trying to stifle calls for democracy in Hong Kong — but also the sports passion of a nation nearly 1.5 billion strong.