Avoiding the Red Card: The Challenge of Separating Sports and Politics in China

By Hannah Price

In recent years, it has seemed like Groundhog Day for sports in China – time and time again, international sports leagues expand into China only to become entangled in China’s political affairs and face consequences. The prospect of doing business in China is understandably enticing due to China’s large economy and its burgeoning sports market. However, many leagues and athletes are continually challenged by the need for political acquiescence when conducting business in China. While sports teams as a whole may decide to toe the line regarding China, teams can rarely muzzle their players, as China does with its own athletes. Recent cases involving the National Basketball League (NBA), the English Premier League (EPL), and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), illustrate the severity of potential repercussions for speaking out against China. By looking at these cases, organizations and individuals can better understand how to engage with China and benefit from its expanding market.

China has publicized its desire to dominate the international sports market, particularly through its August 2021 national fitness plan, which calls for promoting fitness and sports among the Chinese citizenry and increasing China’s sports industry to 5 trillion yuan (roughly $758 billion) by 2025. In contrast, the international sports industry stood at roughly $388 billion in 2020, with North America making up 35% ($136 billion) and the Asia Pacific making up 30% ($116 billion).1 Such a plan shows the CCP’s desire to change China’s culture to be healthier through sports participation and to drive interest in both sports participation and viewership. The increased interest in sports and the potential magnitude of the Chinese market have become irresistible temptations to prestigious sports organizations and athletes from around the world. 

The NBA has made headlines in recent years because of statements critical of China made by individuals working for teams in the Association. In 2019, Daryl Morey, then-general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, posted (and quickly deleted) a tweet supporting pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Shortly thereafter, Chinese broadcasters announced they would no longer stream the Houston Rockets basketball games. Days after Morey’s tweet, the NBA and other Houston Rockets players separated themselves from Morey. Notably, then-Houston Rockets player (and former MVP) James Harden said during a press conference: “We apologize. We love China; we love playing there.” Morey also released a public apology on Twitter.

The apologies by members of the Rockets team were too little too late, as the financial and popularity damage had already been done. As a result of Morey’s comments, the Houston Rockets and other NBA teams were removed from Chinese airwaves for one year, which, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, caused a loss of at least $200 million. As of October 2021, NBA games were still not regularly shown in China. Moreover, earlier in 2019 the Houston Rockets were the second most popular NBA team in China, but fell to the third most popular team a year later.2 The Houston Rockets’ popularity in China is likely due to the team’s drafting and nine-year-long tenure of Yao Ming, a notable Chinese basketball star and, since 2002, President of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). The CBA also cut ties with the Houston Rockets as a result of Morey’s tweet.

The EPL was similarly embroiled in Chinese turmoil in 2019, as Mesut Ozil, a star player for Arsenal F.C., posted a tweet and Instagram post criticizing China’s alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Within days of Ozil’s tweet, Ozil’s home team, Arsenal, posted a statement in Chinese on its Weibo (China’s top Twitter-like microblogging site) account stating that Ozil did not speak for the team, but rather only for himself. Ozil responded by criticizing Arsenal for not supporting him and his prior statements. China’s then-foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, refuted Ozil’s posts, stating: “[Ozil] seems to be blindfolded by some fake news and his judgment was clouded by falsehoods.” In addition, the Chinese Football Association stated that “Ozil’s comments are undoubtedly hurtful to the Chinese fans who closely follow him, and at the same time his comments also hurt the feelings of Chinese people. This is something we cannot accept.”

Soon thereafter, Arsenal’s next game was removed from China’s airwaves and Ozil was removed from a Chinese football video game. After roughly two weeks, Arsenal’s games re-gained limited access to China’s airwaves. The final matches of the season were not played on CGTN, China’s main television station, but instead on a station with fewer viewers. Additionally, Arsenal lost popularity in China, as it fell from the 7th most popular EPL team in 2019 to the 13th in 2020. Ozil also lost popularity in China as jerseys with his number were burned and a search for his name online resulted in error messages. Ozil never retracted his words in exchange for a return in Chinese popularity and some speculate that his eventual exile from Arsenal was linked to his criticism of China.

The most recent high-profile controversy in China’s sports world came in November 2021 when one of the WTA’s top Chinese tennis players, Peng Shaui, accused a former top CCP leader of sexual harassment. Shortly after Peng’s public statement, the Chinese government removed all discussions of her accusation on the internet – even going so far as to limit conversations containing the term “tennis” and Peng went missing for the 18 days following her statement. Additionally, CGTN publicized a supposed email from Peng denying her accusation.

Unlike the NBA and EPL, the WTA stood up to China by suspending its Chinese tournaments indefinitely. In its statement announcing the decision, the WTA Chairman and CEO, Steve Simon voiced concerns for the implications for other female tennis players playing in China, writing, “I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete [in China] when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.”

Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, responded by reiterating China’s “oppos[ition] of the politicization of sports.” Additionally, leaked footage online showed Peng Shuai denying her accusation and announcing that a misunderstanding had taken place regarding her original post. The WTA responded with continued calls for an investigation of Peng’s original claims. China has yet to formally start an investigation into the senior Communist Party member in exchange for the reinstatement of the WTA’s tournaments in China.

The WTA’s decision to withdraw from China in support of one of their athletes is particularly notable. Not only has the WTA been increasing the number of tournaments it hosts in China continually since 2010, but the WTA’s revenue from China has also grown to roughly $100 million. The WTA’s revenue does not include the revenue that would have been generated with the WTA’s 2018 deal to move its finals to Shenzhen for ten years, now suspended as of November 2021. The deal would have doubled the WTA’s prize money for athletes to roughly $14 million – roughly three times larger than any other tournament. The WTA chose to do what has rarely been done before – put its own players before profits.

Each of the above scenarios generated drastically different outcomes. Several factors may have played a role in the CCP’s decision regarding how to respond: popularity, finances, and the sensitivity of the topic criticized.

Gauging the relative popularity of different sports organizations is difficult due to scant data on Chinese viewership. Although not the same as the number of TV viewers, data from Weibo can help indicate an organization’s popularity in China. Given that the NBA has such a large number of followers (as shown in Figure 1), it is possible that the CCP could have wanted to provide a harsh punishment in order to dissuade Chinese citizens from speaking out in the same way. As one of the early cases, China may have also tried to inflict pain on the NBA to set an example and discourage others from following suit.

 

Figure 1: Sports Associations’ Finances and Popularity in China

 

In addition, the NBA, EPL, and WTA all had lucrative deals with China (as shown in figure 1) that occurred prior to their entanglement in China’s political affairs.3The level of financial investment with a sports league can indicate the amount of leverage China has over an association. Financial investments are not the only factor, however, and it is unclear exactly how money has shaped China’s response.

Lastly, the NBA, EPL, and WTA all criticized topics that are highly sensitive to the CCP: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and sexual misconduct by a former member of the Standing Committee. For the CCP, such sentiments are generally seen as a threat to the Party and its legitimacy, though it is easier for top Chinese leaders to distance themselves from the misconduct of one former colleague than problems resulting from PRC policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Under President Xi, China has expressed a growing willingness to respond aggressively to foreign criticism. In a July 2021 speech celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the CCP, Xi exclaimed: “We will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

As the benefits of entering China’s sports market grow, so do the risks for organizations and athletes that wade into the murky waters of Chinese politics. Athletes and professional leagues have taken one of three strategies in response to Chinese objections to remarks about China's political affairs: apologize, remain steadfast, or pressure China. In response, China has demonstrated a willingness to lose international visibility within sports in order to punish those that transgress Party orthodoxy, and teams that apologize can be welcomed back into the fold after a period of punishment. In order to better weigh the potential risks of speaking out against China’s political affairs, further analysis is needed to better understand the potential magnitude of response by the CCP. Sports leagues and athletes engaging with China must now evaluate their options and choose to prioritize lucrative financial gains or ideological morals. In recent years, it has proven difficult to have both.

Hannah Price is a Program Manager with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

1 It is possible that the figures constituting a sports market may vary between countries.
2The data collected for the NBA’s 2019 rankings was collected prior to Morey’s tweet.
3The deals listed are for varying timeframes and purposes.