China – NBA controversy

By Patipat Kittichokwattana

The tension between China and US has been heightened after Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets general manager, tweeted his message to support for Hong Kong protesters. This message likely heated Chinese’s anger. As a sequent, Chinese’s broadcaster CCTV and commercial sponsors began to suspend business relations with Houston Rockets. The situation was worsening as when reaction by NBA’s commissioner who stated his support for free speech, and the US congress released an open letter calling for NBA to suspend all relations with China.

No kind of political activities should be permitted is stated in every sport regulation. However, politics, economics, art and culture that happen outside are usually reflect inside the sport field. It obviously found political intervention along the sport history even in the Olympic games. In 1956, for example, China withdrew from the Melbourne games to protest the Olympic commission that recognized Taiwan to participate this event. The 1980 Moscow games was boycotted by US and 60 nations to protest Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Aftermath, the 1984 Los Angeles games was boycotted by Soviet and 14 socialist countries in response.

One of the most memorable politics interventions in sport was a so call “Ping-Pong Diplomacy”. In the 1971 World Table Tennis Championship at Nagoya, Japan, the US table tennis players, Glenn Cowan, missed his team bus and got into the bus of Chinese team. Chinese players in the bus looked at him with suspicion because, at that time, US and China viewed other as an enemy. But Zhuang Zedong, the 3 times world champion, came to talk with him and gave a silk-screen portrait of the Huangshan Mountains as a gift. When they got off from the bus, they found themselves surrounded by journalists. The Journalists took photographs and ask Cowan how likely to visit China. “Of course,” Cowan replied. It immediately became a big headline in Japanese newspapers.

Moa Zedong, Chairman of Communist Party of China, saw these newspapers and knew that a US table tennis team hoped to visit China. He decided to invite them to play friendship matches on the following day. The schedule was planned, and they were the first Americans who visit China during the period of isolation. It paved the way for Richard Nixon, the US president, to visit China and began political and economic relationship. As a result, China and US agreed to reestablish relationship and finally announced the Shanghai Communique in 1972. It committed US and China to work towards the normalization of their relations. Interestingly, the communique states that US recognized one-China policy and Taiwan as a part of China.

NBA and China controversy demonstrate the collision of the values through sport arena. Although NBA insists their position not to engage in political activities, but some noted that NBA is a political organization. They have to choose between NBA corporate values and the values of the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, Beijing seems to escalate the sense of patriotism among Chinese whenever any comment related to China sovereignty was issued. It’s a serious joke that Ping-Pong diplomacy reestablished US-China relationship but NBA controversy could spell the end of bilateral relations.

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Patipat Kittichokwattana, PhD Candidate, College of Law, Government and International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia