China Blows Whistle on Nationalistic Protests Against the N.B.A.

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BEIJING — After three days of fanning nationalistic outrage, the Chinese government abruptly moved on Thursday to tamp down public anger at the N.B.A. as concerns spread in Beijing that the rhetoric was damaging China’s interests and image around the world.

For days, China’s state-run news outlets and tightly controlled social media platforms had been alight with criticism of the N.B.A. after a Houston Rockets executive expressed support for Hong Kong’s antigovernment protesters on Twitter. Plans to broadcast two N.B.A. preseason games were canceled and some Chinese companies suspended partnerships with the league.

Now, the Chinese government appears to be reassessing its campaign against the N.B.A. and dialing down the clamor. The government is already in a bruising trade war with the United States, and a backlash against China could hurt its image in the sporting world ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics near Beijing. The dispute with the N.B.A. was also quickly politicizing an audience of sports fans who would not normally focus on issues like the protests in Hong Kong.

Editors at state news outlets have told reporters to avoid emphasizing the N.B.A. issue for fear that it might become overheated, according to interviews with three journalists on Thursday.

The controversy soon fell off the government-guided list of top 10 trending topics on Weibo, the country’s Twitter-like microblogging service. The authorities did not cancel Thursday’s preseason N.B.A. game in Shanghai.

And even the highly nationalistic Global Times tabloid stopped pushing populist indignation over the tweet.

“I think this issue will gradually de-escalate — Global Times will not push to keep it hot,” Hu Xijin, the newspaper’s top editor, wrote in an electronic response to a request for comment. “I also hope the American side won’t make any moves to escalate it.”

China’s foreign ministry spokesman refused to say anything further about the dispute at Thursday’s news briefing.

The Chinese backlash sought to pressure the N.B.A. to be more critical of the Rockets’ general manager, Daryl Morey, who had since deleted the pro-Hong Kong tweet. The N.B.A. initially apologized for the remarks but took no further action and its commissioner later defended the league’s employees’ right to free speech.

For many observers, the issue quickly became a reminder that navigating commerce in an increasingly political China can be a minefield for international companies.

Beijing officials worry that a highly politicized struggle over the Hong Kong protests might hurt the two days of high-level trade talks starting on Thursday in Washington. Vice Premier Liu He is leading the Chinese negotiating team in Washington, and two people familiar with the talks said that the Chinese side was eager to conclude a partial deal with the Trump administration.

The protests may cause high-profile athletes and their fans around the world to pay attention to the Hong Kong protests for the first time, and their sympathies might lie with the protesters instead of Beijing, one of the two people said. Both of them insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the trade and nationalism issues involved.

Tying sports very closely to Beijing’s handling of the Hong Kong protests may increase the risk of an international boycott of the Winter Olympics to be held in China in 2022, at a town just outside of Beijing. China has been wary for many months of a possible boycott.

Chinese officials have been quick to point out in recent months that China did send its athletic teams to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 despite a Soviet-organized boycott that year in retaliation for the American-led boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier. China itself did not send a team to the Moscow Olympics, however, but supported the American boycott in 1980.

The campaign against the N.B.A. also put in an awkward position the many retailers that have large stocks of merchandise carrying various brands of the N.B.A. Businesses are reluctant to write off the value of this inventory.

The basketball issue was also drawing unwelcome attention to Alibaba, a Chinese electronic commerce giant that is trying to expand in the United States to compete with Amazon and that has sought to avoid becoming mired in political disputes between China and the United States. Joseph Tsai, a co-founder of Alibaba, also owns the Brooklyn Nets and jumped into the controversy over the tweet. He issued a strongly worded statement on Facebook calling for respect and understanding for China’s desire to oppose any form of separatism after a long history of intervention by foreign powers.

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