Sen. Ted Cruz told CNBC on Wednesday that the National Basketball Association should not bow to pressure from China, following the fallout over a tweet by the general manager of the Houston Rockets supporting the Hong Kong protests.
Cruz, a Republican from Texas, said on "Squawk Box" that he can see why the NBA wants to quell the fervor in China, which is said to have 600 million fans of the league. That's nearly double the entire population of the United States.
"We've seen the NBA falling all over itself to back track, and everyone understands why. There's big money in China. The NBA and NBA teams make a whole lot money; broadcasting in China, having [online] subscriptions in China, having fans there," he said. "But that being said, this really shows how China tries to use economic coercion and blackmail to get American companies to engage in censorship."
Speaking with CNBC from Taiwan on a stop on an Indo-Pacific trip, Cruz said the NBA should not be an "arm of Chinese censorship" by being too apologetic "because that exports their repressive policies and regime to the United States and globally."
The senator criticized the league for initial "abject apologies" after the Morey tweet. "The NBA should be better than that. We should not be willing instrumentalities of Chinese censorship."
In response to CNBC's request for comment on Cruz's remarks, the NBA emailed a statement from Commissioner Adam Silver, dated Tuesday, which said, in part, "I recognize our initial statement left people angered, confused or unclear on who we are or what the NBA stands for."
"We recognize that our two countries have different political systems and beliefs. ... But for those who question our motivation, this is about far more than growing our business," it said.
"It is inevitable that people around the world – including from America and China – will have different viewpoints over different issues. It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences. However, 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. We simply could not operate that way," the statement said.
Silver arrives in Shanghai on Wednesday, after saying Tuesday in a Tokyo visit that he supports Morey's right to free speech while expressing regret that Chinese partners were offended.
The NBA has postponed Wednesday's scheduled media sessions in Shanghai for the Brooklyn Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers, and it remains unclear if the teams will play in China this week as scheduled. At least two other NBA events in the city in advance of the game were called off.
Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai, who recently completed his purchase of the Nets, has said that the damage to the NBA's relationship with China "will take a long time to repair."
On the other hand, Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts told CNBC on Monday that he was optimistic that the current controversy would not alter the NBA's popularity in China over the long term. "I think, when we put this in perspective, six months from now it's not going to look as big as it's looking today."
Cruz on Sunday, along with many U.S. senators on both sides of the political aisle, expressed solidarity with Morey, tweeting, "As a lifelong @HoustonRockets fan, I was proud to see @dmorey call out the Chinese Communist Party's repressive treatment" of protesters in Hong Kong.
Morey's tweet supporting the anti-government protests in Hong Kong was perfectly reasonable, Cruz said Wednesday on CNBC. "The protesters in Hong Kong are standing up for democracy. They are standing up for human rights."
The communist government in China is particularly sensitive about the months of protests in Hong Kong, as it embarks on high-level trade talks with the U.S. Negotiations are set to resume in Washington on Thursday. China feels that the protests in the Chinese territory, which at times have turned violent since they began in June, are an affront to its authority.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.