Some NBA teams, including the Houston Rockets (in red), have worn uniforms with Chinese characters to help promote the game in China. Photo: Getty Images

The latest brouhaha between the National Basketball Association (NBA) and China once again proves that money rules over words and politics trumps economics. Many commentators and politicians, as usual, have missed some of the finer points of a matter that should not have been enlarged into another thorn in US-China bilateral relations.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is fully within his rights to tweet “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Whether it was the wise thing to do is another matter.

Although it was quickly deleted from cyberspace, the tweet did not escape the notice of millions of Internet users in China and immediately prompted a firestorm of criticism and objections from the Chinese, many professing to be diehard fans of the Rockets.

Basically, their message to Morey was, “You don’t understand the complexity of Hong Kong and you should keep your opinion to yourself.” Obviously, the Chinese are not empathetic to the American idea of freedom of speech.

The management of the NBA and the Rockets have seen how indiscretions by name brands can cost them business in China, in one case leading to a full withdrawal from the China market. They understood that unpopular reactions by the Chinese can quickly bite into the bottom line for American pro basketball.

Thus they quickly made Morey’s tweet go away. So far so good. Making money overrules Morey’s freedom of speech.

Then the US politicians from both parties jumped into the fray with their two cents’ worth. These fine leaders of democracy can’t tell the difference between the voice of the Chinese people and the national policy of China.

Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro’s tweet is representative of the bias in the American leadership. He said, “China is using its economic power to silence critics – even those in the US.”

Note that Castro said “China,” not the Chinese people in China. Suddenly, the visceral reaction of the people has been become the repressive policy from Zhongnanhai. (Zhongnanhai is where the Chinese leaders go to work, Mr Castro.)

Many Chinese businesses have begun to distance themselves from the Houston Rockets and even the NBA. The Chinese Basketball Association, led by Yao Ming, a Hall of Famer who played for the Rockets, has announced that it is suspending its relationship with the team.

Businesses in China and the CBA are responding to the free speech of millions of Chinese people. And just as the NBA is trying to repair the economic damage to its presence in China, the Chinese establishment is safeguarding its relationship with its fan base by distancing itself from the NBA.

However, basketball is too big and important for the Chinese people, and we can expect that the tempest will soon blow over and fans will be back to being fans.

For US politicians to take cheap shots at China shows a failure to understand China and the Chinese people, in the process making a molehill bigger and the bilateral divide wider.

It’s time to realize and accept that China will never be like America. In their own way the Chinese have their own values and own sense of personal freedom. So far as much as 90% of the population approve of the direction their government is moving, as opposed to a mere 35% in the US.

The sooner America can accept China for what it is and not what the US would like it to be, the sooner both parties can begin to focus on where mutual ground and common interests exist and find ways to maximize benefits for both sides.

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