Wed, 16 Oct 2019

The National Basketball Association (NBA) lost almost all of its major Chinese sponsors in the country, the league's biggest market outside the US, as the Chinese government flexes its economic muscle after a tweet backing Hong Kong's protesters triggered a backlash.

A local joint venture of Nissan was the latest to distance itself from the US league.

It joined China's largest sportswear maker, the second-biggest dairy firm and a smartphone brand who all said they were pulling out. State television CCTV and tech giant Tencent Holdings said Tuesday they won't show NBA's pre-season games.

In the latest China controversy involving the basketball organisation, Beijing is resorting to a time-tested strategy of targeting businesses it deems to challenge its political interests - especially those questioning its sovereignty over certain territories.

The furor, triggered by last week's tweet by an official with the Houston Rockets, has imperiled the NBA in a multibillion-dollar market.

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"Beijing takes a zero-tolerance attitude to any perceived foreign interference in its internal affairs," said Hugo Brennan, principal Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. "This explains why it is adopting such a hard-line stance."

The fracas has cast a shadow on what was supposed to be a key week for the NBA in China, with two top teams scheduled to play exhibition matches. The Brooklyn Nets - recently bought by Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai - and the Los Angeles Lakers are set to clash in Shanghai on Thursday, and on October 12 in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

The row has also raised doubts if the matches will indeed proceed to plan. Both the teams, already in Shanghai, were due to speak to the media on Wednesday. But the press conferences were postponed "given the fluidity of the situation", the league said, without giving a new date and time.

China has become increasingly sensitive as challenges mount on various fronts. A trade war is exacerbating a slowdown in its $13.6trn economy, while pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are raising questions about its ability to control the semi-autonomous territory.

That made the now-deleted tweet by Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, particularly inflammatory to Beijing.

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