Basketball superstar LeBron James was accused of turning a blind eye to Chinese repression on Tuesday after he criticised a Houston Rockets executive for angering China with a "misinformed" tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong.
James told reporters that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey "wasn't educated" on Hong Kong and should have kept his mouth shut, as the outspoken Lakers forward waded into a charged debate that other high-profile NBA figures have shied away from.
His remarks drew praise from Chinese social media users, who have savaged Morey for butting into the country's affairs, but the US reaction on Twitter was swift and harsh.
"@KingJames – you're parroting communist propaganda. China is running torture camps and you know it," said Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, referring to the reported incarceration of up to one million Muslim Uighurs in prison-like camps.
Following his initial comments to reporters, James – who has a lucrative lifetime endorsement deal with Nike, which does big business on the mainland – attempted to clarify his stance with a pair of subsequent tweets.
"Let me clear up the confusion. I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of [Morey's] tweet. I'm not discussing the substance. Others can talk About that," he wrote.
James complained in his subsequent tweets that Morey's comments put the Lakers through a "difficult week" in China.
Twitter users pounced, saying acidly that Hong Kong's demonstrators and China's Uighurs also were "having a difficult week".
Users also spread a doctored image showing James's smiling face imposed on the giant portrait of Mao Zedong overlooking Tiananmen Square.
A hashtag lauding James's remarks became one of the most-searched on Weibo, China's leading social media platform, with more than 94 million views as of Tuesday afternoon.
One post suggested James should be the league's spokesman to the world: "This is why we love you, the NBA's foreign ministry spokesman." (AFP)