22:51 GMT11 April 2021
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    One of the series’ characters quoted word-for-word LeBron James’ comments that there may be “ramifications” for exercising one's freedom of speech.

    South Park took what seemed to be a clear dig at LeBron James over the NBA star’s response to the dispute revolving around the league, China, and Hong Kong.

    Wednesday’s episode of the satirical animated series, titled Let Them Eat Goo, which goes hard on the nation’s current obsession with plant-based meat diets, features a diatribe by fourth-grader Eric Cartman, who reproaches a classmate for saying that those advocating for healthier food have “a right to free speech”.

    "Yes, we do have freedom of speech, but at times there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you are not thinking about others and only thinking about yourself!” Cartman yelled.

    Seconds later, the meat-loving Eric said that students trying to change his lunch “don't realise it harms people financially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually”.

    This rant, perhaps not coincidentally put into the mouth of the series’ most disagreeable main character, was a direct quote of LeBron, who said it to reporters word-for-word on Monday as he waded in the ongoing row.

    The China-NBA feud

    It all started early this month after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message of support to the Hong Kong protesters, reading “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong”. 

    The Rockets are extremely popular in China, largely due to its now-retired player Yao Ming, so Morey’s post, seen in Beijing as interference in its internal affairs, irked numerous Chinese NBA fans. The Chinese Basketball Association, where Ming is president, ended cooperation with the Rockets, while local state television suspended two NBA pre-season game broadcasts.

    Morey was forced to delete the tweet and said in a follow-up statement that he didn’t mean to offend anyone and was “merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event”. The Rockets said his problematic Hong Kong post did not represent the club’s opinion and did not discipline the executive.

    LeBron's reaction

    LeBron James inititally appeared to take China’s side in the dispute, saying Morey “wasn’t educated about the situation at hand”. He later clarified he meant Morey wasn’t educated on the repercussions of dropping political statements rather than on the situation in Hong Kong.

    “Let me clear up the confusion,” he wrote. “I do not believe there was any consideration for the consequences and ramifications of the tweet. I’m not discussing the substance.”

    Five months of Hong Kong protests

    Mass protests have gripped Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region under Chinese rule, since June. The movement initially started off as peaceful demonstrations against a proposed bill that would allow for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The bill has since been scrapped, but the protests have persisted, leading to guerrilla-style battles with Hong Kong police, with protesters demanding that China not appoint members of the city legislature and amnesty for those charged with rioting. Beijing has repeatedly accused foreign nations, the US in particular, of interfering in the Hong Kong protests.

    One of the previous episodes of South Park showed another character, Randy Marsh, subjected to forced labour and re-education in China after being caught selling marijuana there. Chinese regulators in response scrubbed all episodes and clips of the show from local streaming services and social media, prompting a tongue-in-cheek apology from the series’ creators.

    “Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” they said. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy.”

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