US Vice-President Mike Pence has criticised the US National Basketball Association (NBA) in a speech attacking Chinese diplomatic and trade policies.
In a highly anticipated speech, Mr Pence condemned the NBA and Nike for “kowtowing” to Beijing and “muzzling” criticism of China.
It comes in the wake of a diplomatic row over an NBA owner’s support for anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong.
He also said Chinese policy is growing “more aggressive and destabilising”.
In the speech to the Wilson Center think tank in Washington DC, the Republican said: “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”
The China-NBA row was spawned early this month by a single tweet from a Texas team owner expressing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
What did Mr Pence say?
In his remarks, Mr Pence accused the Chinese government of trying to “influence the public debate here in America” by “trying to export censorship”.
He also accused Beijing of “exploiting corporate greed” of American companies hoping to do business in China.
“Nike promotes itself as a so called ‘social-justice champion,’ but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” he said.
“Nike stores in China actually removed their Houston Rockets merchandise from their shelves to join the Chinese government in protest against the Rockets general manager’s seven-word tweet: ‘Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.'”
Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners who routinely exercise their freedom to criticise this country are silent on other people’s rights, he said.
“In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”
Mr Pence also called on the country to show more respect for the rights of its minority citizens.
The speech comes after Congress voted on laws to support Hong Kong protesters. Beijing has indicated “strong countermeasures” if the White House allows the bill to become law.
It remains unclear if the move would trigger China to walk away from ongoing trade talks.
How popular is basketball in China?
Basketball is the most popular sport in China with 300 million people playing the game, according to the NBA.
The NBA has had a presence in China since 1992 when it opened its first office in Hong Kong.
The Houston Rockets are widely followed in China after it signed Chinese player and eight-time NBA All-Star Yao Ming in 2002.
NBA China, which conducts the league’s business in the country, was launched in 2008 and is now worth more than $4bn (£3.1bn), according to Forbes.
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How did the row begin?
The conflict began in early October with a controversial tweet – since deleted – by Houston Rockets owner Daryl Morey.
The NBA released two statements on the tweet, turning a Chinese backlash into an American backlash as well.
Chinese vendors began pulling NBA products off shelves (the NBA store in Beijing is the largest outside of North America), and cancelled plans to air exhibition matches on Chinese state television.
Early indications show that the league has faced “substantial” losses over the dispute, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.