BEIJING — Back in the Cold War, the sclerotic Soviet system proved no match for the lure of American soft power: bluejeans, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, Coca-Cola, Hollywood. All became symbols of American freedom and prosperity that no amount of communist prohibitions could stop.
Today, China poses a far more formidable yet lucrative challenge for some of the most famous icons of American culture — Apple, Disney, Lady Gaga, and lately the National Basketball Association. Selling the best of American creativity and talent increasingly demands submission to the views of the Communist Party as the price of admission.
A recent furor that began with a single tweet by an N.B.A. executive in support of the Hong Kong protests has underscored the consequences of China’s willingness to use its vast economic clout to police any political values that threaten the party’s legitimacy or its policies.
It is the soft power of cultural vitality — as opposed to the hard, coercive power of military might — that makes the United States admirable in the eyes of much of the world, including China. The companies and organizations that produce much of this culture, however, have had to increasingly bend to China’s political will under its leader, Xi Jinping, whose ambition is to make his country a counterweight, if not an alternative, to the United States.
Amid this new world order, the expectation that American music, movies and entertainment will coax China closer toward the liberal values of its Western rival — or at least build good will, as it did in the Soviet Union — has dimmed.
In case after case in recent years, American executives have yielded to Chinese demands to tailor their words and products, as Hollywood studios now regularly do, or to apologize, even for unintentional slights. The reward is continued access to Chinese customers; the price may be the erosion of American credibility as a beacon of free speech.
“For all of Xi’s rhetoric about preserving globalization and open commerce, shoring up domestic nationalism is the focus of Xi’s international strategy,” Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University, wrote by email. “The Chinese government under Xi has become much more willing to use the power of the Chinese market to force foreign corporations and the entertainment industry to toe the Party’s line on nationalist issues.”
The Communist Party has virtually unlimited resources to marshal popular outrage for its own political ends, but China also risks damaging its own international image when those sentiments boil over, often in unpredictable ways.
For years, companies have acquiesced to China with little notice, as happened with Marriott, the Gap, Versace and United Airlines for references to Hong Kong or Taiwan that Beijing saw as implicit endorsements of those territories’ independence. Then the N.B.A. tripped global alarms over the same issue.
That furor rattled executives and infuriated American politicians and others who seem to be coming to the conclusion that American entertainment giants are too beholden to China’s 1.4 billion potential consumers and, by extension, to the Communist Party. It even became a talking point for presidential hopefuls in the United States looking to decry China’s influence.
“When it comes to national sovereignty, the Chinese government is signaling loud and clear that it would rather be feared than loved,” Professor Weiss said. “This may work to discipline foreign corporations but backfire by increasing general dislike of China.”
Chinese censorship of American entertainment has already become so pervasive that it has become a subject of mockery — at least for those brave enough to risk losing access. “South Park,” the satirical cartoon, found itself blocked from mention in China this month after a recent episode ridiculed the Chinese cultural overseers and American companies that give in to them.
When the latest scandal erupted, the cartoon creators offered an apology. “Like the N.B.A., we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the show’s official account wrote on Twitter. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”
The Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, almost immediately deleted the tweet that started the commotion, but it was too late to stem the damage.
As Mao Zedong said, a single spark can start a prairie fire.
The N.B.A.’s plans for China, which seemed rosy barely a week ago, were suddenly gutted. Broadcasts were canceled, sponsorships suspended. The league faced denunciations from state news media and from aggrieved fans tearing up tickets for an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets in Shanghai on Thursday.
According to Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “While there were undoubtedly many Chinese who were genuinely outraged by Morey’s single tweet, the idea of a monolithic block of 1.4 billion Chinese citizens is a product of C.C.P.-controlled media rather than a reflection of reality.”
“For companies looking to do business with or in China, staying ‘apolitical’ is becoming increasingly unsustainable,” he added.
The Chinese authorities appeared, belatedly, to grasp the consequences of the furor and moved to temper reports and commentary about the N.B.A. that, like previous outpourings of nationalistic fervor, were threatening to spiral out of the government’s control.
“Even with the N.B.A., if you take to hurling abuses, or using linguistic violence, like hatred and invective, that will only make the problems even more complicated, and they may become more serious,” said Tong Zeng, a businessman in Beijing who has been involved in protests and campaigns against Japan.
Shortly before Mr. Xi took office in 2012, anti-Japan protests erupted over a disputed cluster of uninhabited islands, demonstrations that spilled over into violence and arson. The sales of Toyota, Mazda and other Japanese cars slumped in China. Since then, Mr. Xi’s government has reined in nationalist street protests and mass boycotts.
“In China, preserving stability is the most important thing,” Mr. Tong said. “Taking to the streets would be impossible.”
For an emerging superpower, China can seem thin-skinned, and its reactions petulant. Lady Gaga faced a temporary ban on performances and sales in China in 2017 after she met the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom the Communist Party denounces as a separatist.
Last year, Gap was forced to apologize for selling a T-shirt showing a map of China that did not contain Taiwan or islands in the South China Sea. Chinese social media users excoriated the company, even though the shirt was sold in an outlet in Canada, not in China.
Jonathan McClory, the general manager for Asia for Portland Communications and the editor of an annual survey on soft power published with the University of Southern California, said such responses were “not a good look.”
“This reaction will have a negative impact on how people perceive China, not just in the United States, but around the world,” he added.
Until Mr. Morey’s tweet, basketball had appeared to be one area that had escaped the souring mood between China and the United States.
The sport has been a textbook example of soft power, a phrase coined in the late 1980s by Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor and dean at Harvard, to describe the ability of a country’s culture and political ideals to influence others.
During the Cold War’s ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, the American government used soft power to try to win hearts and minds. When the United States Army sent Elvis Presley to West Germany, it was also sending the Soviet bloc on the other side a potent symbol of American cultural life.
It is much less a part of deliberate foreign policy now, in the era of globalization, but American popular culture still penetrates most parts of the world. Even in areas hostile to American government actions, brands like Apple, Coca-Cola and Marvel win plenty of customers.
“If people act in ways that China wants because they are attracted by its economy or performance or culture, that is soft power,” Mr. Nye wrote in an email. “If China makes access to its market dependent on our changing our behavior, that is coercive hard power.”
The N.B.A. has a large and fervent following in China, and the league has tried to return that love, looking to China as a major market, and as a recruiting ground for players like Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets player who is revered across the country.
Even Mr. Xi is a fan of the sport. In early 2012, when he was still China’s leader-in-waiting, he visited the United States, capping his trip by attending a game of the Los Angeles Lakers and receiving his own bright yellow Lakers jersey.
“Basketball is a sport with a major global influence, and the Chinese public love it,” Mr. Xi said in August during this year’s basketball World Cup, which was held in China.
Mr. Morey’s comment appeared to ignite a buildup of frustration with the United States that has mounted amid the trade war. The protests in Hong Kong, which have raged through the summer, have compounded that, even prompting accusations that American officials were aiding and abetting violence there to weaken the party’s grip on power.
The Communist Party’s propaganda machine seized on Mr. Morey’s expression of support for the protests to give the United States a stinging lesson in the commercial cost of provoking Chinese nationalism. Although the government clearly massaged public opinion, the outrage seemed genuine.
Xu Guyong, a 46-year-old civil servant, traveled from Zhejiang Province to catch this week’s game in Shanghai. He and his son, 13, both wore Lakers jerseys. Yet he still condemned Mr. Morey’s tweet.
“If people in China say we should boycott N.B.A., I’m all for it,” he said. “I would answer the country’s calling and give up watching.”
The league rushed to contain the fire, offering an apology and distancing itself from Mr. Morey’s view — only to face its own backlash for seeming to pander to Beijing. To some American lawmakers, the episode amounted to China undermining one of America’s basic rights: free speech.
“TV networks, airlines, hotel chains, retailers & Hollywood already self censor,” Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said on Twitter. “Now private citizens risk losing their jobs if they offend China.”
Mr. McClory, the editor of the annual survey on soft power, noted that in today’s world commercial interests trumped any intention to promote a set of political values.
“The N.B.A. looks at China not as a place to go out and fly the flag for the U.S., or to trumpet the values of democracy and free speech,” he said. “They want to be there, to put it bluntly, for profit motives.”
By late in the week, the Houston Rockets were still struggling to find their balance. When a journalist from CNN tried to ask two team members, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, on Thursday in Tokyo if they still felt comfortable commenting on social and political issues, a media officer for the Rockets stepped in to curtail any reply.
“Excuse me,” said the officer, “we are taking basketball questions only.”
Claire Fu and Amber Wang contributed research from Beijing, and Lin Qiqing from Shanghai.