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A worker removes a promotional banner from a building for an NBA preseason game, in Shanghai, on Oct. 9, 2019.

HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

Anxiety about China’s rising influence has descended upon basketball courts and digital gaming battlegrounds around the world, dragging sports franchises and millions of fans into a deepening conflict between the West, with its expectations of free speech, and Beijing, with its demands for conformity.

The furious Chinese response to an NBA executive’s short-lived tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and a similar declaration by a now-suspended video-game player has elevated the global profile of that city’s clashes between authoritarianism and democratic rights.

China sees the protesters as anti-government rioters bent on secession and has threatened those with business interests in the country if they offer an alternative view. But in extending that pressure to the sporting world, it has provoked a backlash among people who might not otherwise pay much heed to international affairs.

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For most people in Western countries, China has until recently been “like a black smoke monster. You knew it was rising, but its shape was amorphous and nobody really had interest in exploring its essence,” said Tom Doctoroff, an advertising executive with two decades of experience in China who is now the chief cultural insights director at Prophet, the global brand and marketing consultancy.

“Now what you have, for the first time, is China touching on elements of popular culture, where it’s much easier for people to crystallize the difference between their culture and our culture and what it might represent should a 21st century be dominated by China.”

The collision of China’s authoritarian dictates with sport and its immense audience has happened on multiple fronts within the span of days. First Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted – then deleted – an image saying, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” last Friday. When NBA commissioner Adam Silver pointedly refused to apologize to soothe anger in China, Chinese sponsors abandoned the NBA, local broadcasters suspended the transmission of some games and state media lashed out.

Days later, online-gaming giant Blizzard Entertainment handed a one-year suspension to Blitzchung, an elite Hong Kong video game player who on Tuesday wore a mask and goggles to a postgame interview and shouted, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time.”

On Wednesday, cable sports channel ESPN added to concerns about U.S. deference to Beijing when it aired a map of China that included the country’s nine-dashed line, its territorial claim to much of the South China Sea, which few other countries accept.

Now the sporting world is fighting back.

In the United States, fans brought “Free Hong Kong” placards and shirts to an exhibition basketball game Wednesday night between the Washington Wizards and the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The signs were seized by security staff, citing a prohibition on political displays. The previous day, two fans were booted from a game between Guangzhou and the Philadelphia 76ers for similar signs.

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“We’re witnessing something here,” said Jon Schweppe, director of policy and government affairs at the American Principles Project, who was among those carrying signs at the Wizards game. ”I don’t think people recognized just how much of an influence on American culture China has – and the Chinese government has.”

A similar phenomenon has emerged in electronic-sports arenas, with players and executives around the world speaking out against Chinese pressure after the response by Blizzard, whose parent company boasts 350 million monthly users of some of the world’s most popular games, including Call of Duty, Candy Crush, Hearthstone and Overwatch.

In Australia, video-game startup Immutable pledged financial support to Blitzchung – only to be hit by a concerted cyberattack Thursday. In the United States, prominent figures in digital gaming publicly criticized Blizzard, pledging to boycott its games. “That kind of appeasement is simply not something I can in good conscience be associated with,” said Brian Kibler, a popular streamer, in a statement on his website. Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games, a U.S. company that’s roughly 40-per-cent owned by China’s Tencent, said on Twitter that “Epic supports the rights of Fortnite players and creators to speak about politics and human rights.” Fortnite is the company’s multibillion-dollar hit game.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, gamers designed images of Mei, a character in the popular Blizzard game Overwatch, clad in protest gear, hoping to make one of the company’s icons a new symbol of protest.

“Finally people around the world, and especially America, are taking notice of the influence of the Chinese government,” said Avery Ng, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong. “It’s time that the American people, as well as American corporations and businesses, really stand up and uphold their core values of freedom.”

Sports has historically played an important role in international relations with China. In the early 1970s, Ping-Pong diplomacy was “the beginning of a good relationship between China and the U.S.,” said Bo Zhiyue, a specialist in Chinese politics and the director of the XIP Institution, a think tank at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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The dispute over the NBA and e-sports stands to mark a milestone of a very different kind. The circumstances between the two sides are “the opposite,” Mr. Bo said. “I’m not sure China has already gotten into this Cold War era yet. But I think we are moving toward that.” He blamed both the United States and China for stoking nationalism, amplifying events in ways that have raised mutual suspicion and inflicted damage to the relationship.

But it is China that stands to lose, said Mr. Doctoroff, as widening recognition of Chinese pressure on foreign businesses – including airlines, luxury-fashion labels and Apple, which on Thursday cut access to an app used by Hong Kong protesters – stands to dramatically erode the country’s multibillion-dollar efforts to boost its soft power, exacerbating a trend that’s already under way.

Public perceptions of China are sliding in North America, Western Europe and parts of Asia, according to a survey released by the Pew Research Center on the eve of the People’s Republic of China’s Oct. 1 celebration of its 70th anniversary. The worst declines were in Canada and the United States, where 67 per cent and 60 per cent of respondents had unfavourable opinions, the highest in Pew polling history. In the United States, almost half of those polled held favourable views of China as recently as 2017. Now, barely a quarter see it that way.

Then came the NBA and Blizzard.

“This is a teachable moment in Western societies,” said Richard McGregor, an author who has written about Chinese elite politics and is now a senior fellow with the Lowy Institute in Australia. “Because Chinese politics, once it spills offshore, looks crude, didactic and coercive to anyone who lives in a democracy.”

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