A Chinese censor is depicted watching over a South Park character as he writes a script in the show's Band in China episode. Photo: South Park screen grab

National Basketball Association athletes are uniformly large and strong, but league managers on Tuesday seemed to need a lesson from the satirists who created South Park before they straightened their backs enough to approximate standing up to China and Chinese public opinion.

The creators of South Park issued a mock apology to China after censors scrubbed their popular show from the Chinese web.

The tongue-in-cheek statement, skewering Beijing’s demands that western brands conform to its worldview, came with officials apparently annoyed about an episode that crossed several of the Communist Party’s red lines.

The episode – called “Band in China” – depicted forced labor at a Chinese prison, and parodied companies that cave in to censorship for commercial gain.

“I can’t sell my soul like this,” says one character, who was under pressure from Chinese censors to rewrite his music.

“It’s not worth living in a world where China controls my country’s art,” he added.

The incident came as the NBA and its Houston Rockets franchise were facing fierce criticism and financial punishment in China over a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s democracy protesters.

Both the league and the team scrambled to apologize over the tweet by Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey, as calls for a boycott gathered steam in one of the NBA’s most lucrative markets.

But the apologies sparked derision in the United States, where critics said the league was sacrificing morals for money. And whether it was the South Park example or something else that prompted the change, a stiffening of the NBA spine soon came to pass:

The NBA will not regulate speech and won’t apologize for Morey’s controversial tweet, the league’s commissioner said.

Although the tweet had infuriated fans in China, a major market for the NBA, commissioner Adam Silver said the organization would continue to “support freedom of expression and certainly freedom of expression of the NBA community.”

“Morey enjoys that right,” he added, speaking at a press conference in Japan where the Rockets are playing two exhibition games this week.

“The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way,” Silver said in a statement shortly before the press conference.

He reiterated that view to reporters.

“We are not apologizing for Daryl exercising his freedom of expression,” he added, though he expressed “regret” that “so many people are upset, including millions and millions of our fans.”

The tweet posted Friday has provoked an international firestorm, with China suspending broadcasts of NBA exhibition matches on its state broadcaster and sponsors cutting ties with the Rockets.

China is the NBA’s biggest market outside the United States, and the Rockets had been hugely popular there, harking back to their signing of Chinese star Yao Ming, now retired, who Silver said was “extremely upset” about Morey’s tweet.

Silver acknowledged that the controversy was having significant consequences – it has largely overshadowed a trip meant to help boost the brand in Japan and China – but said the league would have to “live with those consequences.”

“It’s not something we expected to happen, it’s unfortunate, but if that’s the consequence of us adhering to our values, we still feel its critically important we adhere to those values,” he added.

Silver said he understood that Morey’s tweet, which has since been deleted, “hit what I would describe as a third rail issue.”

“Of course I would like people associated with the NBA to be sensitive about other people’s cultures, I think saying that by no means suggests we are going to regulate their speech,” he said.

“As a business that operates globally, we always have an eye on local mores, local customs, but again, that’s not prescriptive.”

Silver said he still expects to travel to China later this week, and added that there were no plans to cancel events.

“It’s my hope that when I’m in Shanghai I can meet with the appropriate officials and see where we stand,” he said.

South Park tweet

It was on Twitter that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone offered spoof contrition over any offense they had caused in China with their satirical show.

“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” they wrote.

“We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look just like Winnie the Pooh at all,” the statement added, a reference to banned memes comparing Chinese President Xi Jinping with AA Milne’s portly bear.

“Long live the Great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?” the statement read.

On Tuesday, searches for South Park on China’s Twitter-like social media platform Weibo and popular film review site Douban did not return any results.

And while information on South Park was still available on a few video streaming sites, episodes could not be played.

Parker and Stone’s response to China stands in stark contrast to that of major Western brands that have quickly beaten a retreat when faced with potential losses in China’s huge – and fiercely nationalistic – consumer market.

Cluck cluck

Even if Colonel Sanders isn’t on the list, the clucking among what’s becoming a legion of scared brand names sounds like a barnyard when the farmer chops off a chicken’s head.

Companies ranging from airlines to fashion houses have issued fulsome apologies, often after being charged with “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.”

As well as any indication of support for protests in Hong Kong, common crimes include labeling Taiwan as a separate country – China insists it is a renegade province – or discussing Xinjiang, where rights groups say a million mostly-Muslim minorities are being held in prison camps.

State-run tabloid Global Times issued a blunt warning in an editorial on Tuesday: “Global brands best avoid politics.”

Here are some of the recent high-profile cases:

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific was heavily pressured in a campaign led by state-run media in August after Chinese authorities deemed the airline’s staff too vocal in their support of the protesters.

The airline’s then-chairman John Slosar initially insisted he “wouldn’t dream” of telling his staff what to think – but Chinese threats to blacklist the carrier forced a U-turn and Slosar stepped down last month.

In recent weeks staff described deleting their social media accounts, for fear that colleagues might inform on them, while Cathay announced it had sacked several staff members linked to the protests.

US jeweler Tiffany also came under pressure after a tweet showing Chinese model Sun Feifei covering her eye was interpreted as a sign of support for the Hong Kong protests.

Protesters in the city have adopted the pose to indicate police violence.

The picture of Sun – who was wearing a Tiffany ring on the hand covering her eye – was removed by the brand.

‘Wrong’ labels

Under pressure from Beijing, a growing number of companies and international airlines – including Delta and American Airlines – have also edited their websites to refer to the self-ruling democratic island of Taiwan as “Taiwan, China” or “Chinese Taipei.”

Hotel chain Marriott’s website in China was also shut down by the authorities for a week in 2018 after a customer questionnaire listed Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong as separate countries, prompting the hotel chain to apologize and change the wording.

T-shirt blunders

Luxury fashion brands Versace, Coach, and Givenchy all apologized in August for making perceived affronts to China’s national sovereignty with T-shirts listing Hong Kong and Taiwan as separate countries.

Versace, in its groveling apology, said the offending T-shirts were “destroyed” and Givenchy said the brand “resolutely upholds the One China Principle.”

This followed a major flareup in May 2018, when Chinese social media users targeted US clothing retailer Gap over a T-shirt showing a map of mainland China that omitted Taiwan.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, Chinese consumers snapped up 32% of all luxury goods sold worldwide in 2018, and the figure is expected to grow to 40% by 2024.

Tank man

German camera maker Leica drew fire over an advertisement in April that broached the taboo subject of the 1989 Tiananmen protest crackdown, weeks before the 30th anniversary of the incident in early June.

The ad shows the struggles of a photographer to get in place for the famed “tank man” photo, showing an ordinary citizen facing down a line of Chinese army tanks, before the demonstrations were violently suppressed.

The company distanced itself from the advertisement saying it was not officially sanctioned by Leica.

Earlier in 2018, German automaker Mercedes-Benz apologized for “hurting the feelings” of people in China after its Instagram account quoted exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who is seen as a separatist by Beijing.

Insulting Chinese culture

Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana issued a mea culpa last year after its products were pulled from lucrative Chinese e-commerce platforms over racially offensive social media posts.

The controversy arose in November after the firm posted clips on Instagram showing a woman eating pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks, which critics said was culturally insensitive.

It escalated when company co-founder Stefano Gabbana allegedly hurled insults at the country and its people.

The brand’s founders eventually apologized to customers but said Gabbana’s account had been hacked.

A search for Dolce & Gabbana products on major Chinese e-commerce sites such as Alibaba’s Tmall still turns up no results.

 –Reporting by AFP

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