US Vice-President Mike Pence has denounced the NBA for not speaking out more forcefully on China after pledging his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

In a wide-ranging speech on Sino-American relations, he slammed Beijing over its trade practices, assertive military posture and treatment of religious minorities.

But he also made it clear that the United States ultimately wanted a “constructive” relationship, despite the trade war, which has dragged on for nearly 16 months.

“The United States does not seek confrontation with China. We seek a level playing field, open markets, fair trade and respect for our values,” he said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Pence reserved his strongest language for the National Basketball Association, or the NBA, as he waded forcefully into a row over whether corporate America has sacrificed values in their search for profit in China.

‘Free speech’

“Some of the NBA’s biggest players and owners, who routinely exercise their freedom to criticize this country, lose their voices when it comes to the freedom and rights of other peoples,” he said.

“In siding with the Chinese Communist Party and silencing free speech, the NBA is acting as a wholly-owned subsidiary of that authoritarian regime,” Pence added.

NBA star turned TV pundit Charles Barkley hit back sharply at Pence, while league commissioner Adam Silver, sharing a TNT studio desk, offered a more diplomatic response.

“Vice-President Pence needs to shut the hell up,” Barkley said. “All American companies are doing business in China.”

Barkley complained of “holier than thou politicians” who “just because this thing happened they try to make the NBA and our players look bad. All American companies do business in China, period.”

Going over the history of a controversy that erupted when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” Silver was more measured.

He reiterated that an initial NBA statement on the matter was meant to indicate not that the league found Morey’s tweet “regrettable” but that it regretted the fact that it was sure to anger many Chinese fans.

Still, his comments did not stop China’s state-backed media from wading into the Pence row.

IP theft

Global Times, which is owned by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, spearheaded the attack.

“The speech repeated criticisms made last year that included accusations of intellectual property theft, militarizing the South China Sea, religious persecution, and silencing freedom of speech. Pence also slandered China over Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang,” the tabloid stated in an editorial.

“The growing tensions and the escalating trade war have undermined [the] interests of the two countries. China won’t be overwhelmed by US’ hardline policies, which has been fully proved in the past one and a half years. US political elites should recognize the fact and make true efforts to promote China-US relations,” it added.

– additional reporting AFP