The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Enes Freedom was cut for exposing how U.S. corporations became foreign agents of Communist China

Enes Kanter Freedom. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
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Enes Kanter Freedom sensed the end was coming. “I have 25 games left in my contract, and it’s up after this season,” the 10-year National Basketball Association veteran told me last week. But recently, he said, former teammates and coaches began telling him, “We love you, so we have to tell you the truth. This is your farewell tour. Enjoy it. Smile. Have fun with it. I hope you win a championship, because I don’t think you are going to get another contract after this year, because the things that you talk about cost [the NBA] millions of dollars.”

He didn’t get the chance to make that final championship run. The day after we spoke, the Boston Celtics traded Freedom to the Houston Rockets, who promptly cut him from their roster. “Now you don’t play basketball,” one Chinese government troll gloated on Twitter.

The reason he no longer plays basketball has nothing to do with his performance on the court. In his last game as a Celtic, Freedom had seven points and 12 rebounds in 12 minutes of play — including a beautiful three-point shot. What more likely cost him his career is his criticism of the genocidal Chinese Communist regime, and its brutal suppression of freedom in Tibet, Hong Kong and the Xinjiang region.

The final straw might have been the television ad Freedom produced with Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) calling out the corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics — which they correctly call the “Genocide Games” — including NBA sponsor Nike. “Stand for freedom. Defund the dictators,” Freedom declared. NBC refused to air the ad unless they removed the corporate logos, but Freedom said that defeated the purpose. “I wanted to air this ad on TV to raise awareness of China’s gross human rights abuses … [and] the hypocrisy of the U.S. companies that are silent and enabling to CCP’s brutal behavior.”

He recalled this first time he called out China, wearing a pair of shoes painted by a Chinese dissident that said “Free Tibet.” After warm-ups, he said, two NBA executives warned him to take off his shoes or he could be banned. But Freedom had examined the NBA rules, which did not bar players from placing human rights messages on their shoes. And he had been studying for his U.S. citizenship test, so he knew about free speech. “You cannot take my First Amendment from me,” he said. “Go tell your boss. I don’t care what happens.” At halftime, his manager texted him that China had banned the broadcast of all Celtics games in the country. “It took them 24 minutes to ban everything,” he says. “That clearly shows the dictatorship over there.”

Freedom says he spoke out against Turkey’s human rights abuses for a decade, and no one at the NBA complained, but “I talk about China one day; my phone was ringing once every hour.” The reason? “There are more people watching NBA last year in China than American population — over 400 million,” he says. “Every year, the revenue [the NBA gets from China] is $5 billion.”

When the United States supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in the 1990s, through its admission in 2001, the hope was that U.S. businesses would influence China to be less repressive. Instead, U.S. businesses became lobbyists for the totalitarian regime here at home. It’s not the Chinese government that is trying to silence Freedom; it’s the NBA — worried about its bottom line and its corporate sponsors — who pressured Freedom to stop criticizing China, and then clearly drove him from the court when he refused. The Chinese Communist Party sat back and watched while its paid vassals did its dirty work.

Their malign influence extends beyond the basketball court. U.S. corporations now effectively act as foreign agents of the Chinese regime, lobbying Congress on its behalf. Freedom pointed out that U.S. corporations such as Apple, Coca-Cola and Nike lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans imported goods made with slave labor. “Instead of Communist Party, they are the ones that are doing their propaganda,” he said.

Then there is the hypocrisy. Companies such as Coca-Cola spoke out against Georgia’s voting law but now sponsor the Olympics in a country engaged in genocide. They “preach social justice at home but ignore it when it could affect their revenue” from China, Freedom says.

When he became a U.S. citizen in November, he changed his last name from Kanter to Freedom. Now, for exercising his newfound freedoms, he might lose his basketball career. “I’m 29,” he told me. “I’m healthy. I can play another six years. So, hope that’s not the case.” But he adds, “If that is the reason that I am not going to be able to play basketball again, then you know what? Oh well. I can look back at least and say I did the right thing.”

Many other athletes share Enes Kanter Freedom’s convictions, but not his courage — which is why Beijing made an example of him. The Chinese regime might have the power to silence its critics at home. But for the NBA to help a totalitarian dictatorship reach into this country and punish one of its leading critics is a disgrace.

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