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China forced labor backlash threatens to put NBA in unwanted spotlight

US-China tensions, human rights and business meet again uncomfortably on the basketball court.

In China, local brands are thriving following a backlash by consumers against Nike, H&M and other foreign brands for their refusal to use Chinese cotton made by forced labor. Chinese brands have publicly embraced cotton from the Xinjiang region, resulting in big sales from patriotic buyers and praise from Beijing-controlled media.

In the United States, two of those same Chinese brands, Li-Ning and Anta, adorn the feet of NBA players – and these players are richly rewarded. Two players made endorsement deals with Anta in February. Another signed this week. Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors previously had a shoe deal with Anta that was reportedly widely valued at $ 80 million.

Three-time NBA champion and retired Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade has a clothing line with Li-Ning that is so successful that he has recruited young players for the brand.

Like foreign brands in China, the league and its players may soon feel stuck between Washington and Beijing. Western companies are under pressure from US officials and lawmakers to respond to accusations of genocide in Xinjiang. But they are facing a backlash from consumers in China, where celebrities have severed ties with brands like Burberry and patriotic citizens have burned their Nike shoes on social media.

The NBA and its athletes are familiar with the challenges of trying to stand up to China and maintain access to its nearly 1.4 billion consumers. Just two years ago, China exiled the NBA from state media after the Houston Rockets general manager backed pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The league has so far avoided the latest wave of controversy. It may not last long.

“It’s hard to imagine celebrities and brand ambassadors able to cross that line between these negative opinions about China in their home countries and the increasingly clear demands in China to publicly demonstrate the use of the products. made in Xinjiang, ”said Natasha Hassam, director of the public opinion and foreign policy program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.

Chinese companies themselves are unlikely to take a heavy hit. The United States banned the import of products made from cotton from Xinjiang in January, but neither Li-Ning nor Anta sell large numbers of shoes there. (They are, however, available online.) Yet their full support for Xinjiang could have reputations for American athletes.

“It’s a simpler proposition for a Chinese celebrity to say that I will end my ties to European Company X and that I will probably be rewarded nationally for it,” Ms. Hassam said. “Americans looking to take advantage of the Chinese market find themselves in a much more difficult situation.”

After Li-Ning and Anta released positive statements on Xinjiang cotton last week, investors in China spiked the two companies’ share prices. Chinese state media were quick to fuel the display of patriotism. At one point, a pair of Li-Ning shoes under Mr. Wade’s Way of Wade line traded for almost $ 7,500.

But those statements could prompt regulatory scrutiny of future business operations in the United States, said Brian J. Fleming, a sanctions lawyer at Miller & Chevalier Chartered.

“Speaking, Anta and Li Ning simultaneously support the Chinese government and scoff at the US restrictions, which is a combination unlikely to be warmly welcomed by US officials,” Fleming said.

Anta and Li-Ning did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Thompson, one of the biggest stars in the NBA, is known as “China Klay” by his Chinese fans and once said he wanted to be the Michael Jordan of Anta. His teammate James Wiseman, along with Los Angeles Lakers’ Alex Caruso, signed with Anta earlier this year, according to the sportswear brand’s social media account. Precious Achiuwa of the Heat announced this week that he is joining Anta.

Requests for comment from Mr. Thompson and other NBA players also went unanswered.

Outside of China, Xinjiang has become synonymous with repression. Reports suggest that up to a million Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic minorities have been held in detention camps. In March, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken accused China of continuing to “commit genocide and crimes against humanity” in the far northwest region.

The NBA has powerful reasons to be silent about China. When Rockets chief executive Daryl Morey expressed support for the Hong Kong protests on Twitter in 2019, Li-Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank credit card center suspended their partnerships with the team. . The Chinese Basketball Association, whose president is former Rockets player Yao Ming, has also suspended cooperation with the Rockets.

Mr. Morey deleted the message.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver later said the Chinese government asked the league to fire Mr Morey, a claim the Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly denied. But the incident left a scar on the NBA’s reputation for supporting free speech and severely limited its access to the Chinese market.

China Central Television, the public broadcaster, has stopped broadcasting NBA games after Mr Morey’s Twitter post. Late last year, he briefly resumed coverage of Games 5 and 6 of the NBA Finals. A week later, Mr. Morey resigned as chief executive.

In a radio interview this week, Mr. Silver said that CCTV had once again stopped broadcasting NBA games, but fans could stream them through Tencent, the Chinese internet conglomerate. He said the NBA’s partnership with China was “complicated,” but that “doesn’t mean we don’t talk about what we see, you know, things in China that are inconsistent with our values.”

A league spokesperson declined to comment for this article.

Money and a large Chinese fan base are at stake for players like Mr. Thompson and the dozens of other American athletes who have been heavily promoted by Anta and Li-Ning. Mr. Thompson has partnered with Anta since 2014 which has given him a popular shoe line and sponsored tours in China.

More recent deals between companies and NBA players could face questions in the coming weeks as tensions between the United States and China escalate. Five-time Heat star Jimmy Butler and Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet signed Li-Ning in November. Retired Heat player Mr. Wade helped star guard CJ McCollum and D’Angelo Russell secure deals with Li-Ning through his sportswear line.

“My decision 7 years ago to sign with Li-Ning was to show the next generation that it’s not just a way of doing things,” Mr. Wade wrote on Twitter when he announced the contract. from M. Russell in November 2019. “I had a chance to create a global platform that gives future athletes a web to create and be expressive. “

Sopan Deb contributed to the New York report, and Cao Li from Hong Kong.

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