'Free Hong Kong' Protesters Descend On Wizards Game Amid NBA's China Controversy

Security told protesters they would be removed if they continued to display pro-Hong Kong signs

Protesters hand out "Free Hong Kong" shirts outside of a Washington Wizards game while debating security over the giveaway. (Photo credit: Alex Griswold)
October 10, 2019

Protesters chanted slogans, held up signs, and wore shirts reading "Free Hong Kong" at a Wednesday game between the Washington Wizards and a Chinese professional basketball team.

Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey set off a firestorm after tweeting his support for pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters. The NBA has been largely deferential to the Chinese regime, which had called for a retraction and threatened to suspend its relationship with the league. The controversy was reignited Tuesday when a couple attending an exhibition match between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Guangzhou Loong-Lions were ejected for displaying signs reading "Free Hong Kong." When the Loong-Lions arrived in Washington, D.C., they were greeted by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which handed out shirts reading "Free Hong Kong" in Chinese and English.

Other protesters held up signs reading "Shame on the NBA," "Free Speech is a universal value," and "South Park was right," referring to a recent episode of the Comedy Central show that mocked American companies’ yielding to Chinese government pressure. Organizers distributed pamphlets summarizing the controversy and denouncing the response from NBA commissioner Adam Silver as "a clear example of the authoritarian Chinese government manipulating American companies into towing their propaganda line" and "an outrageous attempt to punish freedom of speech in the United States."

During the pregame singing of the Chinese national anthem, there were additional protests, with activists holding up signs and yelling, "Free Hong Kong." One couple displaying a Tibetan flag left after being confronted by security. Yells of "Free Hong Kong" continued to ring out over the course of the game, as protesters migrated to different sections of the arena.

Security confiscated a "Free Hong Kong" sign from a group of protesters sporting the t-shirts. Later in the first quarter, the protesters displayed a smaller sign reading "Google Uyghurs,"—referring to Chinese Muslims incarcerated in state prison camps—which was also confiscated. One member of the group, Jon Schweppe of the American Principles Project, posted video of both moments on Twitter.

"We were told we would be removed from the arena if we kept displaying signs," Schweppe told the Washington Free Beacon in a text message. "We decided to leave shortly after that point because LETS GO NATS!" (The Washington Nationals won its first playoff series in team history on Wednesday night.)

Schweppe said he found the league's response to pro-democracy protests "deeply disturbing."

"The NBA has now adopted a policy of quashing the speech of American citizens in order to please their Chinese business partners. Even the innocent phrase ‘Google Uyghurs’—answering the demands of NBA figureheads like Adam Silver for a substantive dialogue about a complicated issue—was deemed objectionable," Schweppe said. "We find this to be deeply disturbing and hope the NBA changes their policy."