Newly minted Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai — the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba — blasted a fellow NBA executive on Monday for publicly supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, calling the topic a “third-rail issue.”
“The hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair,” wrote the Nets owner. “Hundreds of millions of fans are furious.”
The outrage was sparked by a since-deleted Tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who wrote simply “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” in response to protests in the city that have raged over a proposed law that would allow judicial extradition from Hong Kong into mainland China — which some protesters believe would effectively end the quasi-sovereignty enjoyed by Hong Kong residents.
Since they were sparked in June, the protests have become a wider demonstration against the increasing power wielded by the Chinese government over the semi-autonomous city.
Tsai — a Taiwanese-Canadian who helped found Alibaba in China in 1999 — blasted Morey’s intervention in the hot-button political matter in a 376-word “open letter” on Facebook.
“Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China,” wrote Tsai. “1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.”
Morey — who is widely considered among the best general managers in the league — has since apologized for expressing support for the protesters.
“I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” Morey Tweeted on Sunday evening. “I would hope that those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention.”
The incident creates a delicate financial conundrum for the NBA, which has significantly grown its business operations in the county over the past decade — a venture helped by Tsai’s purchase of the Nets in August.
In July, the league announced a five-year partnership with Chinese streaming platform Tencent to stream games to over 490 million fans — a deal reportedly worth $1.5 billion.
The league quickly put out a statement to American media following Morey’s controversial Tweet, calling the ordeal “regrettable” — but put out a more strongly-worded statement in China, saying they were “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s comment.
The NBA’s apology drew fierce backlash from the American politicians — including multiple Democratic presidential candidates like Beto O’Rourke, who accused the league of cowering on human rights in the name of profit.
“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” wrote the former Congressman. “What an embarrassment.”
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren accused China of leveraging its economic influence to silence dissent.
“China is trying to use its market power to silence free speech and criticism of its conduct,” wrote Warren. “In response, the NBA chose its pocketbook over its principles — and our values. We should all be speaking out in support of those protesting for their rights.”
The NBA regular season will tip off on Oct. 22, and the Nets will play the Rockets on Nov. 1 at Barclays Center.