Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday accused the National Basketball Association of acting “like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime” in China, in a speech that also chided Beijing for economic and human rights abuses.
The closely watched address was seen as a barometer of the US administration’s approach to China as President Donald Trump works to complete a partial trade deal within the next few weeks.
Over the summer, Trump ordered the speech delayed around the same time he told Chinese President Xi Jinping in a phone call he would remain quiet on Hong Kong protests as trade talks progressed.
The speech Pence delivered Thursday sought to balance conciliation on trade with a critique of China’s human rights crackdowns, including in Hong Kong. His accusation against the NBA, along with the sneaker manufacturer Nike, of ranking business interests over American values stood in contrast to Trump’s own willingness to prioritize trade talks over condemning Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong.
“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.
He went on to say the league is “siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech.”
Pence was also critical of China’s handling of the pro-democracy demonstrations, saying the country was curtailing “rights and liberties” in the city. And he accused the China of engaging in “even more aggressive and destabilizing” behavior over the past year.
The tone of Pence’s remarks were a subject of debate inside the administration, a person familiar with the speech said, and China watchers were listening closely to see how far he went in his criticism of China on human rights and economic malpractice.
Pence sharply chastised China for its detention of Muslim Uighurs at detention camps in the western Xinjiang region and for the Hong Kong crackdown.
“Beijing has increased its interventions in Hong Kong and engaged in actions that curtail the rights and liberties that Hong Kong’s people were guaranteed through a binding international agreement,” he said.
But he also sought to emphasize areas of cooperation and said the US was not “seeking to contain China’s development.”
“We want a constructive relationship with China’s leaders, like we have with China’s people,” he said.
A dispute emerged between the NBA and China earlier this month after the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted support of the Hong Kong protesters. The league was criticized during the fallout for being too beholden to Chinese authorities.
As protests erupted in Hong Kong over the summer, Trump initially avoided harsh criticism of Xi or China, believing taking a firm line could imperil ongoing trade negotiations.
During a private phone call in June, Trump promised Xi that the US would remain quiet on the pro-democracy protests while trade talks continued, two sources familiar with the call told CNN.
Eventually, Trump warned that a “bad” outcome in Hong Kong could scuttle the trade talks, and encouraged Xi to arrive at a peaceful solution.
Pence said Thursday the US supported the protesters, who have warned of encroaching influence from the central government in Beijing on their semi-autonomous status.
“We stand with you, we are inspired by you. We urge you to stay on the path of non-violent protest,” Pence said.
The NBA controversy threatened Nike, the NBA’s official apparel partner, which has relied heavily on the Chinese market for sales growth in recent years.
In the midst of the spat, some Nike stores in China had pulled Houston Rockets sneakers and other merchandise from their shelves, according to a report from Reuters. Losing out on sales of that gear could be especially problematic for Nike, as the Houston Rockets had been one of the most popular NBA teams in China thanks to Chinese player Yao Ming’s eight-year career there.
In his speech, Pence called Nike’s decision to pull Rockets merchandise a move “to join the Chinese government in protest against the Rockets general manager’s seven-word tweet: ‘Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.’”
Nike, Pence claimed, “promotes itself as a so called ‘social-justice champion” but prefers “checking its social conscience at the door” when it comes to Hong Kong.
The situation echoed an earlier episode in June, when Nike said it would not sell in China products from a collaboration with a Japanese designer, after the designer’s comments in support of Hong Kong prompted backlash in China.
Nike said at the time it removed those products from Chinese stores “based on feedback from Chinese consumers.”
Involvement in such an ideological clash is especially tricky for sports brands like the NBA and US footwear companies, which have taken progressive stands on many social issues – diversity, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s equality.
The NBA and Nike did not have an immediate response to Pence’s comments.
Pence was seeking to strike a balance in his speech between fierce criticism of China’s human rights record while keeping open channels for trade talks.
Trump is still working toward that goal, with a meeting with Xi slated for next month in Chile where he hopes to ink the tenuous “phase one” trade agreement announced at the White House this month.
CNN Business reporter Clare Duffy contributed to this report.