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NBA controversy highlights China's red line on sovereignty


Source: China Daily    Published: 2019-10-14

The controversy that the National Basketball Association has found itself in goes to the heart of China's red line on sovereignty.

"You have to understand what is really happening in Hong Kong in order to understand the reaction inside China," said John Ross, senior fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies of Renmin University of China, in an interview last week on By Any Means Necessary, a program of Russia's Radio Sputnik. 

Ross, a British academic, said people from the Chinese mainland have been targeted and "beat up" in Hong Kong in recent demonstrations.

On October 4, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted an image on Twitter supporting protesters in Hong Kong. He later deleted the post.

The Chinese Basketball Association responded to Morey's tweet by suspending its cooperation with the Rockets.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said Morey did not speak for the team, and Morey apologized for the tweet.

The NBA released a statement on Oct 6 that called the situation "regrettable", and the league said on its Chinese social media account that it was "extremely disappointed" by Morey's "inappropriate" comments, which "severely hurt the feelings of Chinese fans".

However, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement in Tokyo on Oct 8 in which he said the league's initial comments left "people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for".

Silver said the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees or team owners say.

Ross of Renmin University of China said Silver's message on free speech in response to Morey's tweet shows that the NBA does not understand the dynamics in China.

When people know the history of Hong Kong, they will understand why Morey's tweet has provoked outrage across China.

In a speech on July 1, when China celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the motherland, President Xi Jinping made clear what Hong Kong means to the country.

"The destiny of Hong Kong has always been intricately bound with that of the motherland. After modern times, with a weak China under corrupt and incompetent feudal rule, the Chinese nation was plunged into deep suffering," Xi said.

"In the early 1840s, Britain sent an expeditionary force of a mere 10,000 troops to invade China and got its way in forcing the Qing government, which had an 800,000-strong army, to pay reparations and cede the island of Hong Kong to it. After the Opium War, China was repeatedly defeated by countries that were far smaller in size and population. Kowloon and the "New Territories" were forcibly taken away," he said.

Xi called that page of Chinese history "one of humiliation and sorrow".

Britain returned Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997. "This ended past humiliation and marked a major step forward toward the complete reunification of China," Xi said.

As a special administrative region directly under the central government, Hong Kong has been reintegrated into the motherland's national governance system since the day of its return.

The central government came up with the "one country, two systems" arrangement for the city.

"The concept of 'one country, two systems' was advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity," Xi said. "That is why in the negotiations with the United Kingdom, we made it categorically clear that sovereignty is not for negotiation.

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible," he added.

Meanwhile, Rockets player James Harden apologized for Morey's tweet and said, "We love China, we love playing there." He also was the target of criticism in the US.

A bipartisan coalition of members of the US Congress sent a letter to NBA Commissioner Silver on Oct 9 in which they expressed outrage that the NBA "has caved to the Chinese government's demands for contrition".

The co-signers included Republican US Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse, as well as Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tom Malinowski. They criticized Silver and the NBA for not standing up for Morey.

The letter concluded by asking Silver to take a number of steps, including a suspension of NBA activities in China until government-backed Chinese companies end what the letter called their "selective treatment" of the Houston Rockets.

ESPN's critics have accused the company of "kowtowing" to Beijing by not discussing the politics at the heart of the country's showdown with the NBA, according to CNN.

Zhang Weiwei, professor of Fudan University in Shanghai, said the public in China is not angry about "freedom of expression" but with Morey's support for Hong Kong protests, which have grown increasingly violent.

John Ross is senior fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China.

Key Words: HK   NBA   RDCY   John Ross  

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