The NBA has increasingly found itself embroiled in political controversies in China, as Beijing demands that foreign enterprises hew to China’s political positions to retain access to the vast market. In 2019, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey voiced support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, drawing fallout in China that continues even today for Morey’s new team, the Philadelphia 76ers. The NBA and the Celtics did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a video posted on his Twitter account Wednesday, Kanter spoke for more than two minutes in support of Tibetan independence, a stance that is illegal in China.
“Brutal dictator of China, Xi Jinping, I have a message for you and your henchmen,” he said in the video. “Free Tibet, free Tibet, free Tibet.” He was wearing a T-shirt featuring an image of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom Beijing considers a dangerous separatist.
China seized Tibet in 1950, ending four decades of de facto independence for the mountainous region.
Beijing called it a “peaceful liberation” that helped an impoverished region throw off a backward past. But even today, some Tibetans wish for independence. Beijing has made a revolt all but impossible, with heavy surveillance in the region and imprisonment for those who advocate what the government calls “splittism.”
In the Tencent Sports app, upcoming NBA games are marked for live broadcast, except the games for the Celtics and 76ers, which will be reported by text and photo.
Asked about Kanter’s remarks at a news conference on Thursday, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin called him “clout-chasing, trying to get attention with Tibet-related issues.”
“Tibet is part of China,” Wang said. “We welcome unbiased friends upholding objectivity across the world to Tibet. In the meanwhile, we never accept the attacks and smears on Tibet’s development.”
Kanter has been politically active for years, criticizing the government in Turkey, where he grew up, which prompted Turkish authorities to seek his arrest. In a June opinion column for The Washington Post, he wrote that in 2017, he had to flee Indonesia, where he was holding a basketball camp for children, after his manager told him Turkish intelligence agents had been sent to capture him.
He has become a familiar presence on Capitol Hill, urging lawmakers to take measures to support human rights in Turkey.
On Thursday, a Celtics China fan account on Weibo with more than 600,000 followers posted on the Twitter-like platform that it was suspending updates on the Celtics because of a certain NBA player’s social media slights.
“From now on, the homepage will no longer report any information about the Boston Celtics, and our Weibo will stop updating!” read the post from the account, Celtics Weibo Express. “Resolutely resist any behavior that undermines national harmony and the dignity of the motherland!”
A sports blogger with more than 4 million Weibo followers, “Brother Qiang Says Stuff,” declared that there should be zero tolerance for Kanter. Others called for a boycott of the NBA to teach Kanter and others a lesson.
Kanter had planned to play Wednesday’s game wearing a pair of sneakers emblazoned with the words “Free Tibet” and an image of a man self-immolating, a desperate form of protest to which Tibetans have sometimes resorted, said Badiucao, a prominent overseas Chinese political cartoonist who painted the designs on the shoes. Kanter was not given the chance: Coaches did not send him onto the court during Wednesday’s double-overtime contest.
Badiucao said Kanter had asked for his help with his Tibet project.
“It surprised me, indeed, because of the potential risks that Enes is taking for this project,” said Badiucao, who uses a pen name to protect his identity. “To act and support people not from your country, it’s a profound and rare character.”
Sports figures risk professional consequences when they criticize China.
In October 2019, the NBA ended up apologizing after Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong protests drew swift business repercussions in China. In his response, Morey wrote that “those who are upset will know that offending or misunderstanding them was not my intention.” The NBA’s apology, in turn, infuriated some fans at home, who thought the association should take a stand for free speech and human rights.
Later in 2019, Mesut Ozil, a star soccer player for Arsenal, took to Instagram to blast China’s oppressive policies on Muslims. Arsenal distanced itself from his comments, and Ozil was erased from video games and Internet forums in China. He was later sidelined by the club, although the reason is disputed.
Kanter’s video emerges as human rights groups have been calling for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, partly because of China’s treatment of some of its ethnic minorities. On Monday, protesters unfurled a Tibetan flag and a banner reading “no genocide” at the traditional Olympic flame-lighting ceremony in Greece.