US Vice-President Mike Pence has criticised the US National Basketball Association (NBA) in a speech attacking Chinese diplomatic and trade policies.
Mr Pence accused both the NBA and the sports equipment firm Nike of “kowtowing” to Beijing and “muzzling” criticism of China.
It comes in the wake of a diplomatic row over an NBA team owner’s support for anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong.
He also said Chinese policy was growing “more aggressive and destabilising”.
In the speech in Washington DC, the vice-president said: “In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly-owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime.”
The China-NBA row began early this month with a tweet – since deleted – by Houston Rockets owner Daryl Morey expressing support for the Hong Kong protesters.
It sparked furious reactions in China, where the NBA has a mass following that provides substantial revenue. NBA products were off shelves and games were boycotted by Chinese state TV.
The NBA released two statements on the tweet – the first one distancing itself from Mr Morley – turning a Chinese backlash into an American backlash as well.
What did Mr Pence say?
In his remarks, Mr Pence accused the Chinese government of trying to “influence the public debate here in America” by “trying to export censorship”.
He also accused Beijing of “exploiting corporate greed” of American companies hoping to do business in China.
“Nike promotes itself as a so called ‘social-justice champion,’ but when it comes to Hong Kong, it prefers checking its social conscience at the door,” he said.
“Nike stores in China actually removed their Houston Rockets merchandise from their shelves to join the Chinese government in protest against the Rockets general manager’s seven-word tweet: ‘Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.'”
Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners who routinely exercise their freedom to criticise this country are silent on other people’s rights, he said.
President Donald Trump and his administration have previously criticised Nike over its decision to support Colin Kaepernick, an American football player who controversially knelt as the US national anthem was played ahead of NFL games.
“In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting like a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime,” said Mr Pence.
Mr Pence also called on the country to show more respect for the rights of its minority citizens.
The speech comes after Congress voted on laws to support Hong Kong protesters. Beijing has indicated “strong countermeasures” if the White House allows the bill to become law.
The remarks come amid efforts by the US and China to end their trade war.
In his speech, Mr Pence said the US was “not seeking to contain China’s development”.
“We want a constructive relationship with China’s leaders,” he added.
How popular is basketball in China?
Basketball is the most popular sport in China with 300 million people playing the game, according to the NBA.
The NBA has had a presence in China since 1992 when it opened its first office in Hong Kong.
The Houston Rockets are widely followed in China after it signed Chinese player and eight-time NBA All-Star Yao Ming in 2002.
NBA China, which conducts the league’s business in the country, was launched in 2008 and is now worth more than $4bn (£3.1bn), according to Forbes.