China Applauds Return of NBA, Urges It to ‘Undertake Lobbying’ for China in U.S.

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China’s state-run Global Times on Sunday touted the participation of the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) at China’s first International Consumer Products Expo, scheduled for May 7-10 in the city of Haikou. The Chinese paper suggested the NBA should “undertake a certain amount of lobbying within the U.S.” on Beijing’s behalf to repay its hosts for their generosity.

The Global Times said the event will give the NBA an opportunity to repair its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey expressed support for the Hong Kong democracy movement in 2019.

China’s state-run CCTV stopped carrying Houston Rockets games after Morey’s comments, the Chinese Basketball Association suspended cooperation with the team, and Chinese e-commerce giants blocked users from searching for Rockets merchandise. Morey stepped down as Rockets general manager in October 2020, prompting CCTV to warn that other American sports teams that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people will have to pay a price” as well.

The Global Times quoted NBA players and officials sending clear signals they will do whatever it takes to avoid antagonizing the CCP and jeopardizing their Chinese income stream:

Yao Ming, president of the Chinese Basketball Association and NBA hall-of-famer, said on Saturday that communication is the key to resolving misunderstandings and biases.

“I think communication is the only way,” Yao said on Saturday in an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ping-pong diplomacy that ultimately saw the Cold War-era rivalry thaw. Yao believed misunderstanding is simply natural as people live in different countries and regions. “But where it exists, it calls for us to have more platforms to communicate to break through misunderstandings.”

Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, also expressed similar expectations of relations between the league and its millions of fans in China, calling for deeper understanding. 

“My personal feeling is when I look at the mission of the NBA, which is to improve people’s lives through basketball, I think continuing to operate in China is completely consistent with our mission,” Silver said in an interview with NBC earlier in April. 

The Global Times obsessively compared these offers of cooperation from the NBA to “ping-pong diplomacy,” the ostensible thawing of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s through table tennis championships. The Chinese government sponsored a ceremony to commemorate ping-pong diplomacy and recommend it as a model for restoring relations between Washington and Beijing today.

Silver said in an April 8 radio interview that the NBA has a “complicated” relationship with China.

“Ultimately we’re an export business. We export American basketball to China, and I would say what comes with it is American culture as well, and that, you know, my personal feeling is when I look at the mission of the NBA, which is to improve people’s lives through basketball, I think continuing to operate in China is completely consistent with our mission,” Silver told SiriusXM host and Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzweski.

Silver persisted in believing basketball exports were a form of “soft power” that might someday liberalize authoritarian China.

“I also think frankly, the future of the world depends on these two superpowers, the U.S. and China figuring out a way to work with each other. It doesn’t mean we don’t speak up about what we see are, you know, things in China that are inconsistent with our values, you know, and that we don’t continue to support players’ ability to speak out on things that are important to them,” Silver added.

The triumphant Global Times editorial on Sunday suggests the CCP is not worried about the NBA exerting any “soft power,” or speaking up about China’s human rights abuses and creating any more “misunderstandings” that might threaten the NBA’s ability to export its very lucrative product to China’s politically controlled markets.

On the contrary, the Global Times expects the NBA to become an obedient lobbyist for Beijing’s interests if it wants to keep doing business in China.

“Compared with the previous ice-breaker of ping-pong games, the current chapter of China-U.S. sports diplomacy may ‘reheat cool water.’ However, it is not a unilateral effort, and the NBA should undertake a certain amount of lobbying within the U.S.,” the CCP paper demanded, implying that CCTV will not allow NBA games to air in China if there are any more acts of defiance such as Daryl Morey’s. At least one such event did occur — NBA player Rudy Gobert condemning China’s genocide of the Uyghur people of Xinjiang in October — but received little attention in the West and went entirely unreported in China.

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