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China’s fight with the NBA, explained

It all started with a single tweet.

Last year, nearly 500 million people in China watched NBA basketball. That’s an enormous number, more than the entire population of the United States, and it represents how hard the NBA has worked to build a market in the most populous country in the world. It also shows how much the NBA stood to lose when, on October 4, 2019, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, posted a tweet about Hong Kong.

In the 1990s, the United States started improving its trade relations with China. Ever since, the NBA has made a deliberate effort to grow its Chinese fanbase by hosting annual summer tours, negotiating domestic broadcasting contracts, and launching creative marketing schemes that appeal to Chinese fans.

It’s been a huge success. NBA stars became celebrities in China, and the league is now an important conduit for other American companies eager to tap into the Chinese market. The NBA’s commercial growth in China has been staggering: In July 2019, the NBA renewed a deal with Tencent, China’s largest streaming platform, that was worth $1.5 billion — three times what it was worth just five years before.

Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming touring China with the NBA in 2004.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The NBA’s success in China represented one half of a larger goal that US leaders had in mind when they originally opened up trade relations with China: That American companies would profit from trade with China and that ideas like democracy and free speech would have more exposure in China.

When Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, it tested that theory. Morey’s tweet provoked the ire of the mainland Chinese government, which censored NBA broadcasts in China. Shortly thereafter, numerous Chinese companies suspended their business deals with the NBA.

The NBA stumbled in their response: not quite apologizing, but not standing up against the Chinese government, either. Players like All-Star LeBron James were asked for their response to the controversy, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver struggled to respond coherently. For them, the problem was that standing behind Morey’s tweet could threaten what the NBA has built in China.

The NBA is not alone in this; lots of companies looking to do business in China have learned to prioritize profits over political ideals. But this particular incident, and the scale of the Chinese response to it, have highlighted that dynamic in stark terms.

This video explores the history that led to this critical moment, and why the relationship between the US and China isn’t exactly what was predicted 20 years ago.

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