China Central Television, the state-run Chinese television network, said NBA commissioner Adam Silver would face “retribution” for saying the Chinese government had asked him to fire a league executive who supported the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong this month.
The public threat was broadcast on Saturday evening in a commentary, in which CCTV also said that “it is ugly for the president of an internationally influential sports league to openly make up a lie to discredit China.” The broadcast picked up traffic in Chinese media outlets such as the South China Morning Post.
An NBA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The incident was the latest escalation in a feud that took the league by surprise early this month, when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted to Twitter and quickly deleted an image supportive of the demonstrators in Hong Kong.
On Thursday, speaking at the Time 100 Health Summit, Silver said the Chinese government had asked the NBA to fire Morey.
“We said there’s no chance that’s happening,” Silver said. “There’s no chance we’ll even discipline him.”
A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry pushed back on that characterization soon after, saying at his daily news briefing in Beijing the Chinese government “never posed this requirement.”
That spokesman, Geng Shuang, had previously suggested the NBA take action, but, at a news briefing in the days after Morey’s Twitter post, did not directly call for Morey’s dismissal.
“The NBA has been in co-operation with China for many years,” Geng said. “It knows clearly in its heart what to say and what to do.”
The commentary on CCTV referred to the demonstrators in Hong Kong as violent mobs and said Silver had shown he had problems in his character. It added that, “once someone’s morality goes wrong, he will receive retribution sooner or later.”
CCTV warned that, “Freedom of speech does not mean that it can be arbitrary nonsense.”
Morey’s tweet, on Oct. 4, caused an immediate backlash: Several companies in China cut ties with the Rockets and CCTV chose not to broadcast exhibition games in Shanghai and Shenzhen between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets the next week. (The league was initially panned in the United States by politicians across the spectrum for not more firmly standing behind Morey, pushing Silver to release a new statement days later.)
In recent days, the Chinese government has sought to de-escalate the tensions at the rare intersection of sports, business and international and domestic politics. Reporters at state-run news outlets were told more than a week ago to stop focusing on the NBA issue.
The NBA’s partnership with China is being threatened against a backdrop of far broader Sino-U.S. tensions, including a 17-month trade war between the United States and China and growing disputes over security and technology issues. Beijing has worried that if the debate over Morey’s tweet continues to fester, the Hong Kong protesters may attract support from athletes around the world and potentially from their fans as well. Beijing officials have even begun to fret that the Hong Kong dispute may lead to calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Silver said at the Time summit on Thursday he was uncertain whether the NBA would ever return to China, which the league has targeted for international expansion for decades.
And the issue does not appear to be disappearing for the league. During a preseason game in Brooklyn on Friday night featuring the Nets and the Toronto Raptors, at least 100 demonstrators showed up to express support for the Hong Kong protests, which have been going on for months targeting the central government in Beijing.
Protesters charge that the ruling Communist Party is trying to curtail civil liberties in the semi-autonomous territory. Joe Tsai, the new owner of the Nets, inflamed the conflict soon after Morey’s tweet, when he posted an open letter on Facebook on Oct. 6, referring to the demonstrators in Hong Kong as a “separatist movement” while also being critical of Morey.