Politicians from across the spectrum—from Ted Cruz to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have warned the NBA not to compromise America’s respect for free speech and bend to China’s will. The Washington Post (paywall), the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal (paywall) have advised the league in strongly worded editorials not to be complicit in Chinese censorship. The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah devoted a segment to the NBA firestorm, with a pretty comprehensive list of China’s offense-taking in the last two years.
And basketball fans have added oil to the issue, as Hong Kongers might say, by taking protest messages directly to NBA games. Fans attending pre-season NBA games in the US have worn t-shirts or held up placards bearing messages of solidarity with Hong Kong, including during an exhibition game between the Washington Wizards and the Guangzhou Loong Lions.
China has a long history of bullying American companies, but this is different. China wants a major US company to punish an American-born citizen, who lives in America, for speech made while on US soil. And unlike other companies that have been forced to change their websites or pull products, the NBA is a company with millions of fans who follow its every move.
There are also few things Americans hold dearer than freedom of speech — it is one of the few issues left with bipartisan consensus, where Americans of different backgrounds and religions and socioeconomic status have common ground. Now millions of people — including millions of sports fans who previously knew nothing about the Hong Kong protests — have been galvanized in opposition to China and in support of freedoms in Hong Kong.
Make no mistake, this was a massive strategic blunder by China.