A 25-year-old Houston Rockets fan in China threatened to burn the Chinese flag in protest of the ongoing dispute between Beijing and the NBA team, and told police to “come and arrest him.”
He was behind bars hours later.
Authorities in China’s northeastern Jilin province said the man, Howard Wang, was accused of publishing “insults directed against the national flag” on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Wang was arrested shortly afterward and the case is being investigated, local police said in a statement.
It is illegal to desecrate the flag in China and offenders can face up to 3 years in prison.
Wang’s social media post was published Sunday, a few days after longtime Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey sent a tweet in support of months-long anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
The Rockets have been arguably the most popular NBA franchise in China since the team drafted Chinese superstar Yao Ming in 2002. Yao played his entire NBA career in Houston.
Morey deleted the tweet and sent out an apology that failed to mollify the NBA’s Chinese partners and infuriated politicians in the US who accused the league of prioritizing profits over values.
After being subject to withering domestic criticism, NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a more forceful statement defending the league’s right to free speech.
“Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA — and will continue to do so,” Silver said. “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.”
Silver’s response drew the ire of Chinese authorities and many angry citizens who said they would no longer support the Rockets. Some said they wouldn’t buy Rockets gear unless Morey resigned. Several Chinese business have also suspended ties with the team.
On Weibo, some posters said if Morey can say whatever he wants, they would do so too, no matter how controversial. So they posted comments in support of 9/11 or the independence of California in an apparent attempt to mock the idea of freedom of expression.
It’s unclear how many Chinese people would have supported Wang, as China’s internet is heavily censored. Many people inside the country likely also self-censor because they are aware of the consequences of posting content that could get them in trouble with the government.
Wang’s photograph showed him wearing a mask and and a patch over one eye, both common symbols among the protesters who have taken to the streets for the past 18 weeks in Hong Kong. While initially peaceful, demonstrations have become increasingly violent as the political unrest has dragged on.
Hong Kong police regularly use tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse unauthorized demonstrations. Protesters have increasingly targeted police using Molotov cocktails and bricks. Protesters have also vandalized government property, the city’s subway system and businesses perceived to be pro-China.