‘We will not be silenced’: Protesters target NBA pre-season game in Vancouver over league’s China controversy

Vancouver (Toronto Star) – “Shut Up! Hong Kong is China!” shouted a man in downtown Vancouver as protesters chanted and hoisted signs, including one that read: “The NBA bowed to totalitarian China. We won’t.”

The Asian man’s anger only galvanized the small group of protesters who shouted louder: “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!”

Demonstrators were rallying outside an NBA pre-season game in Vancouver on Thursday night to voice their anger at the league’s response to Chinese backlash over a general manager’s tweet supporting democracy in Hong Kong.

“We will not be silenced … The NBA is part of a bigger issue and that bigger issue is how the freedom of Hong Kong concerns all of our freedoms when the world is facing a repressive and brutal regime,” said Lee Haber, spokesperson for the informal group of protesters.

The demonstrators gathered at different locations around Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver as the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers prepared to face off.

They handed out leaflets to basketball fans and told Star Vancouver they also plan to stand and chant inside the arena before the end of the first period.

There have been several angry confrontations between pro-Hong Kong and pro-China supporters in the Vancouver area in recent weeks, as tensions spiked in the city, which has a large population of people originally from both mainland China and Hong Kong.

Chinese basketball officials swiftly broke off relations with the Rockets, Chinese companies cancelled multimillion-dollar deals, and Morey apologized and the NBA issued an apology of its own.

The league issued separate statements in English and Chinese. The apology in Chinese said the league was “extremely disappointed” by what it called an “inappropriate” comment that “seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese fans.” The English version said Morey’s remarks “deeply offended” Chinese fans and were “regrettable.”

The controversy has become emblematic of frustrations about the influence of China’s huge market and strong economy on companies and institutions in democratic countries.

In recent years, major international companies — from airlines to luxury fashion brands to jewelry companies — have apologized for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people for actions such as listing Hong Kong or Taiwan as separate countries on websites.

This month in Hong Kong, two police shootings that injured teenage protesters, the stabbing of a police officer and the detonation of a small, remote-control bomb close to police officers ratcheted up violence to levels unprecedented since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

On Wednesday, assailants with hammers attacked a protest organizer, and lawmakers shouted abuse at Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in the city’s legislature, in two dramas that highlighted the tension gripping the semi-autonomous Chinese territory after more than four months of anti-government unrest.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver later said in a statement that he respected different viewpoints on the ongoing protests but, “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA” and that the league will not punish players or team personnel for expressing their opinions.

Haber said Silver’s remarks and the NBA’s continued heavy presence in mainland China were “ultimately contradictory,” because the Chinese government does not respect freedom of speech.

Approximately 300,000 Canadian citizens live in Hong Kong.

In Toronto, another community group has organized a march this coming Sunday called “We the North Will Not be Silenced.”

While the rallying call riffs on the slogan Canadians use to support the Toronto Raptors, the organizers also call on Canadian politicians to take more concrete actions to protect values of free speech and democracy.

CTV, meanwhile, reported that one group plans to try to hand out 7,000 pro-Hong Kong T-shirts at the Raptors’ home opener in Toronto next week.

On Monday, at a Los Angeles Lakers post-practice media scrum LeBron James chastised Morey for the original tweet.

“I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand, and he spoke,” James told reporters. “So many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually,” James said, sparking a flurry of outrage among many fans.

His statements also highlighted divisions among NBA players, including Turkish player Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics, who appeared to address James’ comments with a series of tweets Monday that began with a “Wow dude!” and a facepalm emoji.

“Haven’t seen or talked to my family 5 years,” Kanter wrote in a subsequent tweet, referring to Turkish state backlash over his criticism of authoritarianism there. “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”

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