China’s Forced-Labor Backlash Threatens to Put N.B.A. in Unwanted Spotlight

The tensions between the US and China, human rights and the economy meet again uncomfortably on the basketball court.

In China, local brands are benefiting from a consumer backlash against Nike, H&M and other overseas brands for refusing to use Chinese cotton made from forced labor. Chinese brands have publicly accepted the cotton from the Xinjiang region, resulting in large sales to patriotic buyers and praise from the Beijing-controlled media.

In the United States, two of these Chinese brands, Li-Ning and Anta, adorn the feet of National Basketball Association players – and those players are amply rewarded for doing so. Two players signed advertising deals with Anta in February. Another signed this week. The Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson had previously signed a shoe deal with Anta that was widely reported to be worth up to $ 80 million.

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

Like the overseas brands in China, the league and its players could soon feel squeezed between Washington and Beijing. Western companies are being pressured by American officials and lawmakers to respond to allegations of genocide in Xinjiang. But they are facing a consumer-centric backlash in China with celebrities severing ties with brands like Burberry and patriotic citizens burning their Nike shoes on social media.

The NBA and its athletes are familiar with the challenges of holding their own against China and maintaining access to their nearly 1.4 billion consumers. China banned the NBA from state media outlets two years ago after the Houston Rockets general manager supported pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The league has avoided the final round of controversy so far. It can’t take long.

“It is hard to imagine that celebrities and brand ambassadors would be able to draw that line between these negative views of China in their home countries and the increasingly clear demands in China to publicly demonstrate the use of products made in Xinjiang,” said Natasha Kassam , Director of the Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.

Chinese companies are unlikely to take a significant blow themselves. The United States banned imports of Xinjiang cotton products in January, but neither Li-Ning nor Anta sell a large number of shoes there. (They are available online, however.) Still, your full support for Xinjiang could have reputational consequences for American athletes.

“It is easier for a Chinese celebrity to say that I will end my relationship with X European and that I will likely be rewarded domestically,” said Ms. Kassam. “Americans who want to benefit from the Chinese market are in a much more difficult place.”

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Updated

April 12, 2021, 10:12 p.m. ET

After Li-Ning and Anta released positive statements about Xinjiang cotton last week, investors in China rocketed both companies’ shares. Chinese state media have quickly fueled the show of patriotism. At one point, a pair of Li-Ning shoes was trading under Mr. Wade’s Way of Wade line for nearly $ 7,500.

However, the statements could lead to government scrutiny of future US business operations, said Brian J. Fleming, a sanctions attorney at Miller & Chevalier Chartered.

“In speaking out, Anta and Li-Ning are simultaneously supporting the Chinese government and engaging in US restrictions, a combination that is unlikely to be welcomed very much by US authorities,” said Fleming.

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

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

Comments from Mr. Thompson and other NBA players also went unanswered.

Outside of China, Xinjiang has become synonymous with oppression. Up to a million Uyghurs and other largely Muslim ethnic minorities have reportedly been held in detention centers. In March, Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken accused China of continuing to commit “genocide and crimes against humanity” in the far northwest.

The NBA has strong reasons to remain silent about China. When Daryl Morey, then General Manager of the Rockets, expressed his support for the Hong Kong protests on Twitter in 2019, Li-Ning and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank’s credit card center broke their partnerships with the team. The Chinese basketball federation, of which former Rockets player Yao Ming is president, has also stopped working with the Rockets.

Mr. Morey deleted the message.

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, later said the Chinese government had asked the league to fire Mr Morey, a claim the Chinese Foreign Ministry was quick to deny. However, the incident scarred the NBA’s reputation for promoting free speech and severely restricted its access to the Chinese market.

China Central Television, the state television broadcaster, has stopped broadcasting NBA games following Mr. Morey’s news on Twitter. At the end of last year, coverage for Games 5 and 6 of the NBA Finals resumed for a short period of time. A week later, Mr. Morey resigned as general manager.

In a radio interview earlier this week, Mr Silver said that CCTV has stopped broadcasting NBA games, but fans can stream them through Tencent, the Chinese internet conglomerate. He said the NBA’s partnership with China is “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 spokesman declined to comment on the article.

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

Newer deals between the companies and NBA players could face issues in the coming weeks as tensions between the US and China escalate. Jimmy Butler, a five-time all-star playing for the heat, and Toronto Raptors security guard Fred VanVleet signed up with Li-Ning in November. Mr. Wade, the retired Heat player, helped CJ McCollum and D’Angelo Russell, two Star Guards, close deals with Li-Ning through his line of sportswear.

“My decision to sign with Li-Ning 7 years ago was to show the next generation that this is not just a way of doing things,” Wade wrote on Twitter when he signed Mr. Russell’s contract in November 2019 announced Chance to build a global platform that provides future athletes with a canvas to create and be expressive on. “

Sopan Deb and Cao Li contributed to the coverage.

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