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article imagePence slams NBA, urging tougher stance on China

By Shaun TANDON (AFP)     Oct 24, 2019 in World

US Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday sharply denounced the NBA for not speaking out more forcefully on China as he vowed support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters.

In a wide-ranging speech on US-China relations, Pence lashed Beijing over its trading behavior, assertive military posture and treatment of religious minorities but also said the United States ultimately wanted a "constructive" relationship.

"The United States does not seek confrontation with China. We seek a level playing field, open markets, fair trade and a respect for our values," he said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Pence reserved his strongest language for the National Basketball Association -- whose players have often clashed at home with President Donald Trump -- as he waded forcefully into a row over whether corporate America has sacrificed values in their search for profit in China.

"Some of the NBA's biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples," Pence said.

"In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of that authoritarian regime," he said.

NBA star turned TV pundit Charles Barkley hit back sharply at Pence, while league commissioner Adam Silver, sharing a TNT studio desk, offered a more diplomatic response.

"Vice President Pence needs to shut the hell up," Barkley said. "All American companies are doing business in China."

Barkley complained of "holier than thou politicians" who "just because this thing happened they try to make the NBA and our players look bad. All American companies do business in China, period."

Silver was more measured when asked his response to Pence's comments, again going over the history of a controversy that erupted when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong."

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers plays a pre-season game in Shanghai in October 2019
LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers plays a pre-season game in Shanghai in October 2019

China, a major basketball market, retaliated by ending sponsorships and canceling broadcasts of two pre-season games held in the country. Broadcasts of the NBA's opening regular-season games have also been affected.

Silver reiterated that an initial NBA statement on the matter was meant to indicate not that the league found Morey's tweet "regrettable" but that it regretted the fact that it was sure to anger many Chinese fans.

"I feel that initial statement was twisted to be read as an apology," said Silver, who later issued a statement firmly stating the league supported Morey's right to voice an opinion.

"We're a US company, we're a platform for freedom of expression," Silver said.

- No optimism -

Pence's denunciation of players was likely a reference to Lakers superstar LeBron James, who took issue with Morey's tweet on Hong Kong.

James has been a vocal critic of Trump, accusing the stridently anti-immigration leader of unleashing hate in the United States.

Pence also criticized footwear giant Nike for pulling Houston Rockets merchandise in China. Nike has a sponsorship deal with Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback who has been without an NFL job after refusing to stand for the national anthem in a protest against racism -- protests that Trump criticized.

"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," Pence said.

Pence's speech was billed as a follow-up to a hard-hitting address he gave a year earlier in which he accused China of improperly seeking to influence congressional elections to defeat Trump.

A pro-Beijing crowd rallies behind the Chinese flag in Hong Kong in October 2019
A pro-Beijing crowd rallies behind the Chinese flag in Hong Kong in October 2019
Philip FONG, AFP/File

Pence renewed his assertion that China wanted Trump to lose power. But he also repeated Trump's hope that the world's two largest economies can come to an accord to end a mounting trade war that has triggered tariffs on billions of dollars in goods.

However he declared dead the optimism of successive US presidents that trade will "transform Communist China's authoritarian state into a free and open society."

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