Rubio to Trump: Punch Back on China's NBA Boycott

Rubio to Trump: Punch Back on China's NBA Boycott
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Rubio to Trump: Punch Back on China's NBA Boycott
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The Houston Rockets and the NBA are waging a lonely and costly battle with China — too lonely for Marco Rubio’s taste.

The Republican senator is pressing President Trump to directly intervene and use existing U.S. law to penalize any U.S. individuals and entities participating in a China-led boycott against the NBA and the Rockets.

China launched the boycott in earnest this week over a now-deleted tweet by the Rockets’ general manager expressing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

If the cost of doing business in China is censorship of U.S. individuals and organizations, then the U.S. should respond in kind and impose its own penalties on Chinese companies, argue Rubio and others urging more pushback.

It’s an idea rapidly circulating among the administration’s China hawks, GOP sources tell RealClearPolitics.

“Have already formally asked Trump administration to fully enforce anti-boycott laws that prohibit any U.S. person – including U.S. subsidiaries of Chinese companies from complying with foreign boycotts seeking to coerce U.S. companies to conform with #China’s government views,” Rubio tweeted Wednesday morning.

The two-term Florida senator had just sent Trump a two-page letter urging him to wade into the fight and prevent China’s NBA boycott from extending to business conducted in the U.S.

“It is past time that the U.S. takes a forceful and unambiguous stand against the Chinese government and Communist Party’s ongoing efforts to bully and coerce American companies and American citizens to bend to Beijing’s will,” Rubio wrote.

Rubio specifically called on Trump to impose “mandated penalties” on U.S. persons working for U.S. subsidiaries or affiliates of Alibaba Group,, Tencent and any other Chinese companies operating in the U.S.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to an RCP request for comment on Rubio’s letter.

Up until Wednesday, Trump had been relatively quiet on the international firestorm between the NBA and China even though he often opines on sports, including the professional basketball league.

While talking to reporters after signing an executive order, Trump unloaded on two prominent NBA head coaches, the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr and the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich – both outspoken Trump critics — for what he said was their hesitancy to discuss the clash with China.

“I watched this guy, Steve Kerr. He was like a little boy who was scared to even be answering the question, and he couldn’t answer. He was shaking and saying, ‘Oh, oh, oh,’” Trump said. “He didn’t know how to answer the question, and yet, he’ll talk about the United States very badly.”

Trump said Popovich reacted in a similar way as Kerr when asked to comment, although “he didn’t look quite as scared, actually.”

When asked what the NBA should do next, Trump said that “they have to work out their own situation.”

“The NBA, they know what they’re doing, but watch the way Kerr, Popovich and some others are pandering to China, and yet to our own country, it’s like they don’t respect it. I said, ‘What a difference, isn’t it sad?’”

In an interview Tuesday, Kerr called the clash between the NBA and China a “really bizarre international story,” and said “a lot of us don’t know what to make of it” but he’s “reading about it just like everybody else” and declined to comment further.

Popovich, in a separate interview, backed NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s most recent public comments supporting Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s freedom of speech.

“It wasn’t easy for him to say. He said that in an environment fraught with possible economic peril, but he sided with the principles that we all hold dearly, or most of us do until the last few years. So I’m thrilled with what he said.”

The remarks and a brief earlier tweet referencing the NBA’s awkward clash with Beijing broke Trump’s notable silence on the issue after reports that he had agreed to stay relatively quiet on the Hong Kong protests while the two countries continue to negotiate an end to their trade war.

Trump denied agreeing to stay mum on the protests, and on Monday told reporters that “we’d like to see a very human solution to that,” adding moments later that he thinks President Xi Jinping “has the ability to do it.”

“I hope that’s going to happen, and you know, Hong Kong is a very important as a world hub — not just for China, but for the world. And you have great people over there.”

“I see they’re flying the American flags. They even have signs: ‘Make China Great Again.’ ‘Make Hong Kong Great Again.’ … They have tremendous signage and … tremendous spirit for our country,” he added.

But those pressing Trump to push back more strongly against China say his administration’s renewed focus on the trade talks, set to begin again Thursday, should not sidetrack the administration’s willingness to protect Americans’ freedom of speech.

“Trade deals are not very good if they require you to give in or jeopardize your national security or your values as a nation,” Rubio said on CNBC Tuesday.

Economic analysts and China experts are setting a low bar for the latest round of trade talks and point out that the Trump administration has already slapped China with two new sets of sanctions this week over Beijing’s abuse of Uighur and other Muslim minorities in that nation’s northwest territory and its surveillance and detention of minority groups. 

“All of that certainly doesn’t put out the red carpet” to Chinese negotiators arriving in Washington this week, Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser and China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told RealClearPolitics. 

Kennedy also pushed back against Rubio’s call to arms. 

“I don’t think it makes sense to engage in a tit-for-tat with the Chinese on such a hot-button issue for them unless we have already thought out what the first and second order of consequences will be” for the stakeholders directly involved in the dispute, he said. 

“From what I can tell the NBA believes they can handle this on their own and they aren’t looking for an escalation, but they are looking to explain clearly to the Chinese how the NBA operates and the rights of the players and executives to speak to their minds, but to do so in a way that they are representing themselves,” he said. 

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver traveled to Shanghai and was meeting with Chinese officials Wednesday to try to do some fence-mending. 

Silver said he wanted to repair the relationship but would not cave to China when it comes to protecting freedom of expression. 

“The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and owners say or will not say on these issues,” Silver said. “We simply could not operate that way.” 

Several U.S. politicians expressed outrage after Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta publicly rebuked Morey, the team's general manager, over his tweet and the NBA initially issued an apologetic letter before reversing itself and expressing solidarity for his right to free expression. 

The NBA’s multibillion-dollar business relationship with China is now hanging in the balance. 

After the tweet, China started blackballing the Rockets and has since expanded its boycott to NBA events. On Tuesday the government pulled the plug on an NBA Cares event featuring the Brooklyn Nets and a second NBA Cares event, this one with the Los Angeles Lakers, was canceled Wednesday. 

After the NBA got on board and backed Morey’s right to freedom of expression, CCTV, a Chinese state television company, halted plans to broadcast the NBA’s preseason games in China.

One of CCTV’s anchors plainly stated that all foreign companies hoping to make money in China should agree to Beijing’s territorial and political claims.

“It is not realistic for them to earn a large amount of money from China while hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” the broadcaster said.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce and tech giant, which is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and, another Chinse company with U.S. operations, banned Rockets-related items from being sold through their online platforms.

Additionally, Tencent, a Chinese tech company with a U.S. branch that owns the digital rights to NBA games in China, recently announced it would stop airing Rockets games and news.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. has adopted several laws to prevent foreign governments from leveraging their economic power to try to intimidate and control Americans. Parts of the Export Administration Act of 1979 and the regulations surrounding it bar any U.S. person, including “any domestic concern” and any “permanent domestic establishment of any foreign concern,” from complying with a foreign boycott that the U.S. opposes.

There are also U.S. tax laws that can be used to deny tax benefits to companies that participate in such a boycott, Rubio pointed out in the letter.

Last April, he and Rep. Chris Smith chaired a bipartisan commission on China and held a hearing focused on the growing threat from that nation’s global economic reach.

During the hearing, Rubio warned of the “very real costs” of failing to confront China’s “pernicious authoritarianism at home and increasingly abroad.”

“If we fail to address it, Americans here at home and those of us who love democracy and freedom around the world … could find ourselves living in a world where we work somewhere or live somewhere where we cannot speak freely without losing our job or some other benefit, because who we work for, who controls us, is not ourselves, but a foreign government who uses the leverage of foreign access to its market in order to reach here, and impact one of our most cherished principles.”

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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