Chamath Palihapitiya's Uyghur Controversy Is Latest in NBA's Awkward China Relationship

Chamath Palihapitiya, an owner of the Golden State Warriors NBA basketball team, came under fire following his recent remarks expressing strong doubts about reports of human rights violations against Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region.

The comments by Palihapitiya—who reportedly owns two percent of the NBA franchise, according to the New York Post—is the latest among recent controversies that have compromised the NBA's relationship with China, with whom the franchise has garnered billion-dollar deals.

What Did Chamath Palihapitiya Say Regarding China?

During an episode of his All-In podcast, which aired Saturday, Palihapitiya and his co-hosts began a debate about the Joe Biden administration's stance on Beijing's treatment of Uyghurs, while discussing the domestic economic and political situation in the U.S.

During the Donald Trump administration, the U.S. became the first major Western government declare China's repressive policies "genocide" and "crimes against humanity."

Maintaining that stance, the Biden administration imposed several sanctions and implemented the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in December 2021.

During the latest podcast episode, in response to co-host Jason Calacanis, Palihapitiya said: "Let's be honest, nobody cares about what's happening to the Uyghurs, OK?

"You bring it up because you really care—and I think that's nice that you care—the rest of us don't care," he said.

When he was challenged by Calacanis, Palihapitiya—who is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian American—said he cared more about domestic issues, such as the poor healthcare infrastructure in the U.S.

"But if you're asking me, do I care about a segment of a class of people in another country? Not until we take care of ourselves will I prioritize them over us," he explained.

Following backlash on social media over his comments, in a tweet Tuesday, Palihapitiya issued "clarifying statements," noting "Important issues deserve nuanced discussions."

He stated, upon re-listening to the latest podcast, "I recognized that I come across as lacking empathy. I acknowledge that entirely."

Highlighting his background coming from a family who fled a country with "its own set of human rights issues," he said "this is something that is very much a part of my lived experience.

"To be clear, my belief is that human rights matter, whether in China, in the United States or elsewhere. Full stop," he concluded.

Other Incidents That Shook NBA's China Relationship

A Former NBA GM Tweets Image Supporting Hong Kong Protests

Back in October 2019, Daryl Morey (the president of basketball operations for the NBA's 76ers and former general manager of the Houston Rockets team) tweeted an image showing support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, where protests had been ongoing for months following the proposal of an extradition law.

In a tweet that has since been deleted, Morey posted an image that read "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong."

The tweet quickly saw Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and the NBA issue statements to distance themselves from the sentiment expressed by Morey, who also backtracked.

Fertitta tweeted that Morey "does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets," while the NBA stated it recognized Morey's tweet "deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable."

Morey tweeted at the time: "I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China...I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives."

Spectators Shout 'Free Hong Kong' at an NBA Game

Also in October 2019, a man and his wife at a Philadelphia 76ers pre-season game against the Guangzhou Loong-Lions of the Chinese Basketball Association were ejected from the match shortly after the man stood up and yelled "Free Hong Kong" during the second quarter.

During the match, the couple held signs which read "Free Hong Kong" and "Free HK" in reference to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. The signs had been confiscated by security, who told the man "no politics."

According to the NBA Fan Code of Conduct, "obscene or indecent messages on signs or clothing will not be permitted." However, there is no mention of politics or political statements.

Why Is China Important to the NBA?

The NBA and China have had a strong relationship for over 40 years since 1979 when the relationship began with a Washington Bullets exhibition game, USA Today reported in October 2019.

The NBA's revenue from China was estimated to be around $500 million annually, based on deals that are publicly known.

In July 2019, China's Tencent signed a five-year, $1.5 billion deal to remain as the NBA's exclusive digital partner in China, which marked the league's largest partnership outside of the U.S.

China's state-owned broadcaster CCTV also has a partnership with the NBA, broadcasting multiple games live weekly, including coverage of the playoffs, USA Today reported.

The fallout from Morey's now deleted tweet was estimated to be "hundreds of millions of dollars," according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

He said in February 2020: "I think that the magnitude of the loss will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars," noting: "Certainly, probably less than $400 million, maybe even less than that."

Even after Morey deleted his tweet and Silver issued an apology at the time, the NBA faced several losses. In addition to Chinese state-run broadcasts no longer showing NBA pre-season games, China ended their ticket sales for a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers in Shanghai at the time and many Chinese brands suspended their relations with the NBA.

Chamath Palihapitiya at a NYC tech event.
Chamath Palihapitiya speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY event on April 29, 2013 in New York City. The podcast host faced backlash this week following his statements regarding human rights violations against Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region. Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch