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Joe Tsai to WSJ: Hong Kong protests ‘hijacked’ by violent protests

China National Team v New York Liberty Photo by Matteo Marchi/NBAE via Getty Images

With the Rockets —and their GM, Daryl Morey— in town, you had to expect that the controversy over Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong protests would resurface.

And it did.

In his first comments since the Nets returned from China, Joe Tsai spoke with Stu Woo of the Wall Street Journal, reiterating his main points about Chinese sensitivity to any suggestion of Hong Kong separatism and the right of free expression. He also noted that the Hong Kong protests have turned violent. It was Morey’s tweet supporting the protests that set the Chinese government off ... and almost led to the cancellation of the Nets games with the Lakers.

“Many of these acts are directed against China as protesters burn the Chinese national flag, destroy shops that they deem to be close to China and beat up people just because they speak Mandarin,” Tsai told Woo. “You can’t blame citizens in mainland China for interpreting these acts as an assault on their identity. The protesters have lost their narrative and there’s waning support for their tactics.”

But Tsai’s main point was that the context of his Facebook post, an “open letter to fans” about the controversy has gotten lost.

“All I ask is for the critics to read my full post, let the facts sink in and reflect on what they would do if they had the same hurtful experience that Chinese people went through during those years of foreign invasion,” he told The Journal.

Tsai had been criticized for suggesting that the protesters were “separatists” seeking independence and that all 1.4 billion Chinese citizens share his beliefs.

The comments, which many said had echoed the Chinese Communist party line, drew heavy criticism from Hong Kong protest leaders and U.S. congressmen and Senators as well as presidential candidates.

Tsai told Woo he was not surprised by the backlash. “Reasonable people will disagree on a complex issue,” he said. “The spirit of free speech is based on people’s willingness to have reasoned discourse instead of pinning labels on those they disagree with.”

The Nets owner, who was educated in the US at Lawrenceville School, Yale and Yale Law School, is executive vice-chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and, as Woo reports, dependent on the approval of the Chinese government. Reuters reported over the summer that Alibaba was responsible for developing an app for the party.

Morey, who has not spoken about the controversy since issuing regrets over the post, is expected in Brooklyn.