“I can live without basketball, but I cannot live without my homeland”

BEIJING – When Wu Xintong’s favorite team, the Los Angeles Lakers, faced the Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai on Thursday, they broke a more than 10-year viewing streak and deliberately missed the game.

Until recently, the 20-year-old student from Northern Hebei Province religiously followed her idol, Kobe Bryant. She meticulously recorded in a notebook the details of every Lakers performance, right down to the time stamps of certain players’ movements. According to her own accounting, two-thirds of her closet is filled with Lakers jerseys and other purple and gold clothing, not to mention the Lakers mugs, stickers and cellphone cases that she keeps in a box.

But then Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted last week in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, and that all changed for fans like Wu. A new chant flooded Chinese sports forums: “I can live without basketball, but I cannot live without my homeland.

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The explosion of patriotic fervor – backed by Chinese companies quickly suspending their partnerships with the NBA – came just after a big celebration marking the 70-year reign of the Communist Party in China. President Xi Jinping, the country’s most powerful ruler for decades, rallied people around the promise of a Chinese dream and national rejuvenation, a stronger national economy coupled with global influence to rival that the United States. people, who have found solidarity amid a protracted trade war and Hong Kong’s democratic movement, crises the government has described as deliberate attempts to contain China’s inevitable development.

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On China’s National Day, as audiences across the country prepared for a military parade that showed long-range missiles and a nuclear-weapon glider, black-clad protesters in Hong Kong burned the national flag and degraded photographs of Xi.

The government described the mass pro-democracy protests, which began peacefully in June but grew increasingly violent, as fringe riots led by foreign-influenced separatists bent on destroying the semi-autonomous Chinese city. . This narrative has been widely successful on the mainland, where internet memes ridicule protesters as “young trash cans” and label Hong Kong “China’s” high maintenance girlfriend “. After NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he supported Morey’s right to free speech, angry nationalists online set their goals on the basketball league.

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“You eat at our house, then you spit on our food,” commenters on the Weibo-type platform Twitter said, referring to the NBA’s multi-billion dollar ties to China.

The NBA controversy may have received the most media coverage, but it was far from the only debacle to involve an American company offending the political sensitivities of the ruling Communist Party in the same span of days. Apple and jeweler Tiffany & Co. faced immediate censorship for appearing to support the Hong Kong protests, video game giant Activision Blizzard punished a high-ranking gamer for shouting protest slogans in Hong Kong during the a webcast, and “South Park” posted an ironic apology for an episode about American companies succumbing to Chinese censorship.

On online forums and Weibo, Internet users have reveled in the power of the Chinese consumer. One image released depicts Morey as a cartoon character awake at night, sleepless after squandering the Chinese market.

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“The outpouring of anger among Chinese internet users appears to be real rather than fabricated, with virtually no sign of dissent,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a Cornell University professor who studies Chinese nationalism. But this chorus of outrage also reflects the effectiveness of the Chinese government’s messages and propaganda in stoking popular nationalism, describing the Hong Kong protests as an illegitimate separatist movement and defining the ongoing trade and technology war as a struggle. national against foreign aggression. “

Outrage coincides with a wave of National Day patriotism earlier this month. Across the country, flags distributed by the government festooned the entrances of shops and residential buildings. As homework for the week-long vacation, elementary school children were given the task of taking pictures of themselves standing next to a flag, as well as writing poems about their feelings for the motherland.

A film titled “My People, My Country” portrayed seven pivotal moments in the history of the People’s Republic, featuring major stars as a fighter pilot, atomic bomb scientist, taxi driver and driver. ‘others who have played a role in China’s development. Many Chinese people said they couldn’t stop humming the theme of the film, which was sung by pop idol Faye Wong and played on repeat in many public places.

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Historical events covered in “My People, My Country” included the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the anniversary of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the 1997 handover, when Hong Kong was returned to China after the British rule.

“No force can stop the progress of the Chinese people,” Xi said in a televised speech on the national day.

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In a country where criticism of the Communist Party invites censorship and even arrest, expressions of love for the nation are a safer and simpler bet.

“Nationalism online is the result of patriotic education efforts: identification with the Chinese nation is now part of the identity of many people, as are stories of national humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialists and the recent rise to fame, ”said Florian Schneider, Director. of the Leiden Asia Center in the Netherlands.

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Schneider added, however, that just like angry online comments elsewhere in the world, Chinese nationalist sentiments can quickly fade as people lose their energy or other topics compete for their attention.

The eagerness of fans and businesses to attack and reject the NBA has not gone unchallenged in China. Some online commentators, including the editor of the nationalist Global Times, have questioned the fertility of completely disassociating from the NBA.

“Ending cooperation with the NBA should not become some kind of trend,” said Hu Xijin, who in a separate comment called patriotism one of China’s greatest resources.

JC Wang, a 23-year-old sports microblogger in central Henan Province, said he hopes young people won’t blindly harass Chinese fans and NBA players in the name of patriotism, although he also believes that Morey and the NBA should apologize.

“For a large number of Chinese basketball fans, the NBA is already an indispensable part of life,” Wang said.

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Then he echoed a belief expressed by many netizens: “I love basketball and the NBA, but I also know why I can lie comfortably in my bed at home and watch the NBA in the first place.”

In other words, without China’s economic progress, the opportunities to enjoy these leisure activities would not even be available. This week, the Communist Party proved that it can just as quickly withdraw these luxuries.

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While the Shanghai preseason game between the Lakers and the Nets went as planned, it was not shown online or broadcast on state television. No Chinese media reported the game.

“If no one else around me is watching, (the NBA fandom) may turn out to be something that never happened,” Wang said.

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