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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The NBA’s swift apology to Chinese fans for a single tweet in support of Hong Kong protestors is part of a troubling trend: The Communist Party in Beijing is setting boundaries for what Americans more than 7,000 miles away are willing to say on sensitive issues.

Why it matters: This isn't a covert operation. It's China using its market power to bully American companies and organizations in broad daylight — and muzzle free speech.

The big picture: U.S. companies are increasingly weighing in on social and political issues at home. But when it comes to China — in particular to Hong Kong or to mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang — they’re silent.

  • "When it has to do with market access in China and profits ... they will bend over backwards to apologize," says Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The latest: An image that Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey tweeted — then quickly deleted — that backed Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests kicked off a firestorm in China.

  • Both Morey and the NBA backtracked after offending Chinese fans. But the Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association and multiple Chinese businesses have severed ties with the Rockets, reports Axios' Kendall Baker.
  • Hanging in the balance is an NBA-Tencent streaming deal worth billions, the support of millions of Chinese fans and Morey's job.

This isn't the first time Beijing has squeezed an apology out of — or even changed the behavior of — an American entity.

  • Marriott apologized to China after Beijing shut down the hotel chain's website because it listed Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Macau as separate countries. "We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China,” the company said in a statement.
  • All three big U.S. airlines — American, United and Delta — bent to China's will last summer and scrubbed references to Taiwan as its own country.
  • The Gap — under threat of getting cut out of China — apologized for selling T-shirts with a map of China that didn't include Tibet or Taiwan. The company said its map was "incorrect."
  • Beijing, which is Hollywood's biggest international market, has also pushed American studios to alter content in order to get into Chinese theaters.

What to watch: NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement on the situation this morning.

  • "It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China — will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences."
  • "However, the NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say on these issues. We simply could not operate that way."

The bottom line: Leveraging foreign access to its 1.5 billion consumers is one of China’s most potent weapons against the U.S.

  • "It's an authoritarian government, and the Communist Party is in control," Glaser says. "They are able to have impact on what their citizens do, and they can mobilize their citizens to hold boycotts if they want do that."

Go deeper

8 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 9 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.