China has backtracked on a controversial stance after a single tweet from a team GM sparked an expensive two-year boycott.
NBA basketball returned to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV for the first time in nearly 18 months on Wednesday, after China black-listed it following a team official’s support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
National broadcaster CCTV streamed the Los Angeles Clippers’ 121-115 victory over the Utah Jazz, to a mixed reception from Chinese basketball fans.
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China, the NBA’s largest overseas market by far, suspended broadcasts on CCTV after the Houston Rockets’ then-general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong democracy protesters in 2019.
Since then, CCTV has frozen out the league, but viewers have been able to watch games on online streaming platforms and CCTV aired Game 5 of the NBA Finals in October 2020.
A CCTV spokesperson at that time called the decision a “normal broadcast arrangement” and noted the NBA’s “continued expressions of goodwill” towards China.
CCTV did not give a reason for Wednesday’s broadcast and did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
In an interview in 2019, the league’s Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum revealed NBA China — which manages everything NBA-related in the country — was worth more than $4 billion.
However, US media reported that Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has recently been in a running war of words with Morey, who is now working for the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Last time he tweeted, he cost the NBA a billion dollars. So I don’t think he should be doing too much tweeting,” Lue reportedly said this week after a Morey tweet about Lue’s team.
The return of the NBA to Chinese screens sparked a mixed reaction from the country’s social media users, with some slamming what they saw as CCTV’s failure to stick to its guns.
“Who’s to blame for Chinese people’s lack of backbone?” read one post on the Twitter-like Weibo social media platform. “How will foreigners view us if our official media do this sort of thing?” But others were just glad to same the games back on their screens. “I love my country, but that doesn’t stop me from also loving the NBA,” one commenter posted.
As pro-democracy protests roiled the financial hub of Hong Kong in October 2019, Morey tweeted an image bearing a slogan used by demonstrators urging the world to “Stand with Hong Kong”.
He later deleted the tweet and apologised, but Chinese business partners and celebrities to cut ties with the league after NBA executives defended Morey’s right to freedom of expression.
The NBA has worked to mend fences since then, even as player Enes Kanter Freedom recently risked reigniting tensions with strong criticism of China.
The outspoken centre, who most recently represented the Boston Celtics, called President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” for China’s policies in Tibet and urged athletes to boycott last month’s Beijing Winter Olympics in protest against human rights abuses.
China vociferously denies allegations of religious repression and other abuses in the far western region, claiming it “peacefully liberated” Tibet in 1951 and has raised living standards with new infrastructure and education policies.