US lawmakers urged the NBA to suspend all activities in China until Chinese firms and broadcasters end their various boycotts of the league

Shanghai (AFP) - The NBA said that an annual exhibition game in Shanghai would go ahead Thursday, rejecting calls to scrap the event over a free speech row that was ignited by an American basketball executive’s pro-democracy tweet.

Superstar LeBron James and his Los Angeles Lakers teammates arrived at the arena for their game Thursday night against the Brooklyn Nets, the first of two pre-season matches held each year to build on the league’s already huge popularity in China.

But they tip off in a tense atmosphere after a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive last week in support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement thrust the world’s top basketball league into the centre of an escalating China-US dispute.

The games will not be seen in China – local broadcasters cancelled plans to air them, and the NBA’s Chinese sponsors severed ties to protest against the comments by Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

How the Houston Rockets and the NBA have played back and forth since a fateful "Stand with Hong Kong" tweet.

Giant promotional banners touting James and other stars were pulled down throughout Shanghai by the government on Wednesday, as many Chinese called for the games to be scrapped.

In an open letter released on Wednesday, a bipartisan set of US lawmakers also urged the NBA to suspend all activities in China as a principled show of support for “democratic rights”.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect American companies to put our fundamental democratic rights ahead of profit,” said the letter.

It urged NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who came to Shanghai for Thursday’s game, to “take a stand.”

But the NBA confirmed on Thursday afternoon, just hours before the Shanghai game was to start, that it would go ahead.

An NBA representative also told AFP that there were currently “no changes” to plans for the second game of the series, scheduled for the southern city of Shenzhen on Saturday.

Silver and the NBA initially responded to Morey’s tweet with statements that American politicians branded as kowtowing to China.

- Anger over free speech vow -

But, under mounting pressure in the United States, Silver on Tuesday made a strong defence of Morey’s right to free speech and American values that provoked new outrage in China’s state-controlled media.

NBA Commissioer Adam Silver triggered outrage among Chinese authorities when he defended free speech in his organisation

“The long-held values of the NBA are to support freedom of expression, and certainly freedom of expression by members of the NBA community,” Silver said in Japan.

He added that the league would “have to live with” any consequences arising from that.

A large police presence kept a close watch outside the arena, where a number of people passed out small Chinese flags to arriving fans, many wearing the jersey of James and other players.

“We think it is necessary to express our love for our country,” said one man, who gave only his surname, Xiong.

Xiong said he was passing the flags out as a “basketball fan” and hoped to distribute 10,000.

Despite the Chinese anger, so far there has been no broad anti-NBA protest campaign on China’s government-controlled internet, nor any suggestion that the popular broadcasts in China of the NBA’s upcoming regular season are in jeopardy.

And China sports industry insiders told AFP that, if the situation does not further deteriorate, the NBA was expected to weather the crisis – though likely with some financial losses – thanks to its huge popularity in China.

But in a sign of the lingering sensitivities, the NBA abruptly announced that planned press conferences before and after the game had been cancelled, giving no explanation.

Hong Kong has endured nearly four months of protests ignited by a now-scrapped plan to allow extraditions of criminal suspects to be tried in China’s opaque courts.

They snowballed into a movement calling for more democratic freedoms, the biggest challenge to China’s rule of Hong Kong since its handover from Britain in 1997.

China reacts fiercely to any questioning of its sovereignty over semi-autonomous Hong Kong, and state media has repeatedly warned foreign firms that voicing support for protesters could cost them access to China’s market of 1.4 billion people.

Apple on Thursday removed an app criticised by China for allowing protestors in Hong Kong to track police.