Enes Kanter didn’t see the ground at the Boston Celtics season opener Wednesday night, but the outspoken center’s impact on the NBA season was soon felt.
Kanter posted a video on social media earlier that day calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” and expressing his support for Tibetan independence.
The comments sparked a swift reaction from Beijing and threatened a new backlash against the league, which is still surging from its last political controversy in China, a lucrative market with millions of fans.
Tencent, which as the NBA’s digital streaming partner in China draws half a billion viewers per season, withdrew from broadcasting the Celtics’ game against the New York Knicks. The team’s upcoming games are also no longer listed as available for streaming on its schedule, and searches for Kanter’s name appear to have been blocked on China’s Twitter-like social media platform, Weibo.
Meanwhile, a Celtics fan account on Weibo told its 600,000 followers that he would no longer post about the team.
“Any behavior that undermines the harmony of the nation and the dignity of the motherland, we resist resolutely!” Wrote the administrator of the site.
NBC News has reached out to Tencent, Weibo, the NBA, and the Boston Celtics for comment.
The spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, said in a press conference on Thursday that Kanter was trying to âattract attentionâ and that his statements were ânot worth refutingâ.
“We will never accept these attacks to discredit the development and progress of Tibet,” he said.
Kanter wore a t-shirt depicting Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and posted a two-minute video on social media on Wednesday directed at “brutal dictator Xi Jinping and the Chinese government.”
âI am here to raise my voice and speak about what is happening in Tibet. Under the brutal rule of the Chinese government, there are no basic rights and freedoms for the Tibetan people, âhe said, ending the video by repeating” Free Tibet “three times.
After Kanter stood trial in Madison Square Garden, he planned to wear a pair of bespoke shoes with designs by Chinese cartoonist Badiucao, a pseudonym.
The shoes refer to the 150 Tibetans who, according to Amnesty International, have protested Beijing’s rule by immolating themselves over the past 14 years.
Kanter, who was born in Switzerland to Turkish parents and grew up in Turkey, has previously spoken out loud and ruthlessly criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan for his and other activists, whom he considers authoritarian politics.
The Turkish government has revoked Kanter’s passport and issued arrest warrants for defamation and terrorism.
It is just the latest example of basketball and other sports getting geopolitical entanglements with China, whose companies have threatened to cut off the vast and lucrative Chinese market in retaliation for Western athletes’ comments on human rights.
In 2019, Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong amid Beijing’s efforts to increase its influence over the enclave.
Morey deleted the tweet and apologized, and the NBA said the league has “great respect for China’s history and culture” – comments that many in the US saw as kowtowing the Chinese government for fear of access to their hundreds of millions to lose potential eyeballs.
The backlash followed anyway.
A Chinese sportswear manufacturer and two banks that sponsored the Rockets helped the team. And the state CCTV broadcaster has stopped showing the entire league.
Meanwhile, soccer star Mesut Ãzil, who was playing for Arsenal in the English Premier League at the time, was at the center of a similar storm that same year when he expressed his support for the Muslim Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang region, which forms the United States and others say they are victims of genocide, which Beijing denies.
Ãzil was soon removed from the Chinese version of a popular soccer video game, and his teamâs next game was removed from CCTV’s schedule.
Kanter’s cause for Tibet is less discussed than Xinjiang. But last year, a group of around 50 independent United Nations human rights experts called on China to end alleged oppression of its religious and ethnic minorities. Watchdog Amnesty International says that “the severe and widespread repression of ethnic minorities has continued unabated”.
Activists calling for Tibet as an independent country say its resources are being exploited by Beijing and its Buddhist religious and cultural heritage is being wiped out.
China claims Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries. It is said that the conquest by communist forces in 1950 improved the lives of the population in terms of health, education, and economy compared to the region’s earlier existence as a relatively primitive hinterland ruled by a top theocratic leader.
Dawn, Sarah Vega, Associated press and Reuters contributed.