IssuesHouston Rockets-NBA Controversy Over Chinese Censorship Reveals Growing Corporate Trend

Communist China has long engaged in the censorship of its entertainment industry and is exporting that practice to American companies and brands.
October 9, 2019
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America’s entertainment industry is known for touting its love of artistic freedom.

China’s authoritarian government is not.

The world’s largest and most influential communist regime routinely takes White-Out (or rather, Red-Out) to American products.

Movies have either been white-washed so as to contain the minimal amount of free expression and political commentary while still drawing eyes or canceled altogether so as not to offend the communist regime. Products have been altered to comport with Chinese propaganda regarding Taiwan or Tibet.

The world’s most popular search engine, Google, has entertained the idea of adhering to the regime’s Internet censorship demands. And in June, Nike famously bowed to China’s demands and removed an entire product line of sports shoes because the designer supported the Hong Kong protests on social media.

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Earlier this week, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey — widely considered one of the league’s brightest young figures — tweeted out a photo that said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” 

In retaliation, China announced it would be ceasing operations with the NBA.

Since then, the NBA has attempted to straddle both sides of the fight — on one side, adhering to China’s demands and protecting the league’s massive growth rate that is largely thanks to China’s market, and on the other defending its employee and the free expression it has long touted. 

Commissioner Adam Silver stated, “It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues.  It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”

For their part, the Rockets (who boast the largest popularity of NBA teams in China) carted its star duo James Harden and Russell Westbrook out to apologize. “We love China. We love playing there,” Harden stated.

The Houston Rockets press office did not reply to request for comment.

This trend of capitulation to the Chinese government is not new, and not limited to the NBA.

Just yesterday, Deadspin got its hands on an internal ESPN memo forbidding employees, when discussing the Morey controversy, from mentioning China’s and Hong Kong’s political dispute.

ESPN’s parent company, Disney, has been widely accused of self-censoring its products at the bidding of China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) for some time now.

The video game company, Activision Blizzard, banned one of its players for making a pro-Hong Kong statement on camera after a victory. That company has nearly $18 billion worth of assets and has both a sales headquarters in Dallas and a design studio in Austin.

Apple and Paramount recently excluded the Taiwanese flag from its products, while Tik Tok censored videos mentioning the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Mercedes even apologized for quoting the Dalai Lama on Instagram.

However, not everyone has elected to go this route.

In typically prescient fashion, the popular and irreverent cartoon comedy South Park released an episode in its latest season called “Band in China.” The whole premise is how American companies self-censor in order to sell their products in China.

In this fictional-in-name-only version of China, Winnie the Pooh and Piglet are held as political prisoners. How is this not that fictional? Because Chinese censors banned the movie “Christopher Robin” after internet trolls started comparing Xi Jinping to the honey-loving, friendly bear.

This episode went over about as well as you’d expect among China’s communist ruling party. China banned South Park from its internet.

To which the creators (Matt Stone and Trey Parker) issued the following sarcastic statement: “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts. We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t just look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this Autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”

Contrast that with the NBA’s “diplomatic” statement and you have two clear and different approaches toward facing down big brother’s authoritarian stick.

Indeed, when hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars are at stake, it’s clear that some companies have been all too comfortable choosing one particular path even if Matt Stone and Trey Parker chose another.

Will corporate America, particularly those in the entertainment industry, support protestors in Hong Kong standing up for their human rights and basic human freedoms?

The trend line is not promising.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.