American basketball’s delicate relations with China

ENES KANTER’S campaign against the Chinese Communist Party has been relentless. The basketball star recently entered professional matches wearing custom shoes that read “Free Tibet,” a slogan that has long made Beijing cringe. He invited the co-founder of Nike, a sportswear company, to visit “slave labor camps” in northwest China (Nike says it does not source products from the region). On November 2, Mr. Kanter, who plays for the Boston Celtics, posted a message for the Chinese president on Twitter: “The ruthless dictator XI JINPING… listen to me loud and clear: Hong Kong will be FREE!

The slam-dunk on China, the American National Basketball Association (NBA) and clothing brands such as Nike have the potential to cause extraordinary damage. Tencent, the Chinese Internet giant has pledged to broadcast NBA matches, has already blocked the Celtics. The league relies heavily on Chinese sponsors and has already had a taste of what the cancellation means. The dissemination of NBA The games were on hiatus for more than a year in China from October 2019 after the Houston Rockets general manager expressed support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. The embargo was painful. Almost all of China’s trading partners canceled or suspended their agreements at the time. The league commissioner estimated the loss in revenue at $ 400 million. He has forecast $ 10 billion in revenue for the current season.

Mr Kanter also drew more unwanted attention to clothing brands caught in a controversy over the supply of cotton to China’s Xinjiang region, the homeland of the Uyghurs and where human rights groups say the forced labor is common. Multinationals are forced to take sides on issues of freedom of expression, says Badiucao, the Chinese artist who designed the evocative shoes of Mr. Kanter (he masquerades as a pseudonym). Some do just that. Yahoo, an American internet giant, announced on Nov. 2 that it would pull out of China, citing tough business conditions. Weeks earlier, LinkedIn, a professional networking group, announced it would shut down its major operations in China after being forced to comply with increasingly stringent censorship rules.

The NBA is very popular in China. Many fans disowned the league in 2019, but were eager to watch it last year. Communist Party authorities must balance the popularity of the sport with their instinct to punish critics, says David Bach of the Institute for Management Development, a Swiss business school. Instead of stirring up sentiment against the NBA and announcing a total broadcast ban, as in 2019, so far only Celtics games have been blocked. The NBA neither criticized Mr. Kanter nor asserted his rights to such speech. The impasse is equivalent to a form of negotiation between NBA and the Communist Party, says Bach.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “L’audace des cerceaux”

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