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National Basketball Association players and the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, have a well-earned reputation for candor about politics and social matters. Last year, Silver told CNN that the “sense of an obligation, social responsibility, a desire to speak up directly about issues that are important” is “part of being an NBA player.” Taking note of a certain meekness in other corporate suites, he said, “I think in this day and age, you really do have to stand for something.”

It was entirely consistent with this ideal that the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, posted an image on Twitter on Friday night that included support for Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protests: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

Though Morey soon deleted it, the tweet quickly angered China’s Communist rulers. They have been struggling to squelch the Hong Kong protesters, who want China to honor its commitments for democracy and rule of law in that semi-autonomous territory. The Chinese Consulate in Houston declared it was “deeply shocked by the erroneous comments” and demanded the team “correct the error and take immediate concrete measures to eliminate the adverse impact.”

Pathetically, the league immediately capitulated, essentially importing China’s denial of free speech to the U.S. It apologized to China, saying Morey’s tweet was “regrettable” (NBA Commissioner Adam Silver later said the league was not apologizing but was “apologetic” the tweet offended some in China); a Chinese-language version called it “inappropriate.” The team owner rushed to disavow Morey’s support for democracy, tweeting that Morey “does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets.” Morey issued a groveling reconsideration that would have been welcome in a Communist Party criticism/self-criticism session.

Of course, a lot of money is at stake. The Chinese Basketball Association immediately suspended relations with the Houston Rockets. Sponsors began pulling back from deals. Tencent, the Chinese digital rights holder for NBA broadcasts, dropped the team from streaming. The NBA is big business in China, where 500 million people watched games last season, and where a new streaming deal alone will generate $1.5 billion for the league over the next five years.

But that’s the point. China is attempting to enforce its version of the truth all around the world — bullying Chinese-language newspapers in Canada and the United States, patrolling the speech of its students abroad, demanding that foreign airlines and hotel chains wipe Taiwan off their maps. Some of its targets don’t have the wherewithal to stand up to this assault — which is why the NBA’s cravenness is so damaging. With all its financial muscle, its enormous popularity and its moral preening, if the NBA can cave so easily, who will resist the censorship of the Communist dictators?

Those dictators will say, as usual, that Morey’s tweet offended the “Chinese people.” But because the Chinese people themselves are not free to speak out — since anyone in China expressing support for the Hong Kong movement is also punished — those claims should not be taken seriously.