Next week’s pre-season game in Vancouver between the L.A. Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks could get caught up in the fracas between the NBA and China over the protests in Hong Kong.
There have been minor disruptions at two other North American pre-season games with fans being asked to leave and take down their signs in support of Hong Kong protesters. But Vancouver is one of a handful of cities, along with Sydney and Melbourne, that has become known for tense, physical and verbal confrontations between those for and those against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests.
While there has been talk about the Vancouver NBA game on messaging app channels used by local organizers in support of the Hong Kong protests, nothing is being planned, said Kevin Huang, who has observed several of the clashes.
“It’s going to be interesting if one of the sides tries to take the agenda away from (the NBA). If the pro-Hong Kong side or the pro-mainland Chinese side says, ‘we’re going to make a big deal out of this,” could this heat up? It certainly could,” said Lindsay Meredith, a professor emeritus of marketing strategies for Simon Fraser University.
On Wednesday, security at a Washington Wizards pre-season game dealt with a fan who shouted, “Freedom of expression! Freedom of speech! Free Hong Kong,” according to Espn.com. Other fans in there handed out “Free Hong Kong” T-shirts. On Tuesday, in Philadelphia, two fans were asked to leave by the 76ers and the Wells Fargo Center for “continuing disruption of the fan experience” and after there had been multiple complaints and warnings.” Both of these pre-season games featured American teams playing a Guangzhou team from the Chinese Basketball Association.
Rogers Arena, like other venues, has a policy about signs and message, which says banners containing commercial or politically motivated, religious or obscene messages are not permitted.
There has been immense and emotional reaction from devoted fans, companies and government institutions in and outside of mainland China since a tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of the Hong Kong protests. It has included high-profile American politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ted Cruz who put aside partisan differences to jointly condemn the NBA for not standing up for free speech.
On Thursday, The New York Times reported that “after three days of fanning nationalist outrage, the Chinese government moved to tamp down public anger at the NBA as concerns spread in Beijing that the rhetoric was (spreading beyond basketball fans and) damaging China’s interests and image around the world.”
The flash points related to the Hong Kong protests has been tough for the biggest companies and organizations to navigate. They had already been trying to manage by saying as little as possible, but as the protests in Hong Kong more intensely divides people, there has been a shift.
“Their hands get forced if their employees or consumers or suppliers speak up,” said Meredith.
Even as many peaceful protesters continue to take to the streets of Hong Kong, there are also rioters firmly in the mix of beatings and shootings. The ensuing chaos and violence has both sides vehemently blaming each other.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that some NBA fans in China are asking for subscription refunds from Chinese tech giant Tencent Holdings, which has rights to stream U.S. games in China and said it would suspend showing them.
A small group of employees at online game publisher Activision Blizzard’s main campus in Irvine, California staged a walkout after the company banned Hearthstone player Chung Ng Wai from its league for a year and took back his earnings. The Hong Kong-based player was punished for shouting, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” during an interview about his tournament success.
Tiffany & Co., the U.S. jewelry brand, on Wednesday deleted a tweet showing a model wearing a diamond ring on her right hand and using it to cover her right eye after mainland Chinese consumers accused it of being in solidarity with the view of Hong Kong demonstrators who had been using the same pose to call for inquiries into police violence.
Also on Wednesday, after Apple was criticized by Chinese-state media for a mapping app in its app store that allowed Hong Kong protesters to track the movement of police, the American tech giant removed the app from its store.
Meredith said companies have different market segments. When two of these segments involve people deeply opposed over Hong Kong and pleasing one means losing the other, the solution has sometimes been to choose the one with the greater financial potential, Meredith said. But this calculation is fraught with risk when “global product suppliers” find their future and traditional markets pitted directly against each other.