Turkish basketball player Enes Kanter has prompted a backlash in China for calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator”.
The NBA player posted two messages of support for Tibetans on social media on Wednesday.
The Chinese foreign ministry has described his remarks about suppression against Tibet as “ridiculous”. Sports media giant Tencent will no longer broadcast live NBA games of Kanter’s Boston Celtics.
The move echoes a similar decision taken by Chinese media against another NBA team — the Philadelphia 76ers — after current president Daryl Morey supported the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Human rights activists and exiles have accused Beijing of practising torture, forced sterilisation, and cultural erosion in Tibet.
Beijing has ruled the remote western region since the People’s Liberation Army took control in 1951, and the Chinese central government has denied the allegations.
‘I cannot stay silent,’ says Kanter
Enes Kanter voiced his criticism of the Chinese president in two posts that were shared on both Facebook and Twitter.
In a three-minute video, the 29-year-old criticised Beijing and proclaimed “Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people”.
“Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are non-existent,” Kanter said.
“I cannot stay silent. I stand with my Tibetan brothers and sisters, and I support their calls for freedom.”
In the video, the Celtics centre wore a T-shirt bearing the image of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
In a second post, Kanter uploaded an image of basketball shoes inscribed with Tibetan iconography and the slogan “Free Tibet”.
The shoes were designed by Baidiucao, a dissident China-born cartoonist and artist based in Australia.
Kanter was pictured wearing the shoes while he was on the bench during the first game of the 2021-22 season against the New York Knicks on Wednesday.
The NBA only restricts players from wearing third-party logos on their shoes, which require prior permission.
At a daily press conference on Thursday, Beijing dismissed Kanter’s remarks and stated that the NBA player was “trying to get attention”.
“His fallacy is not worth refuting,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
“We welcome all friends from various countries who are unbiased and uphold an objective stand to visit Tibet.”
“At the same time, we will never accept attacks that discredit Tibet’s development and progress,” he added.
Kanter’s remarks were however widely condemned by users on Chinese social media, where Twitter is blocked.
A Weibo fan page for the Boston Celtics with over 650,000 followers wrote that it would cease updating its social feed after Kanter’s tweets.
“Any behaviour that undermines the harmony of the nation and the dignity of the motherland, we resolutely resist,” the page’s administrator wrote.
On the sports website of Chinese giant Tencent, Celtics games abruptly disappeared from upcoming live broadcasts scheduled.
‘A difference this time around’
The action by Tencent comes two years after another state broadcaster CCTV ceased broadcasting NBA games of the Houston Rockets.
In 2019, then-Rockets general manager Morey tweeted his support for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The post was swiftly deleted but it sparked an open crisis between the United States and China.
Meanwhile, another sportsman with Turkish roots — footballer Mesut Ozil — was deleted from Chinese computer games after he publically criticised the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China.
Companies like the NBA operating in China risk losing access to a huge market of supporters if connected to political statements. The league has not yet commented.
Kanter’s comments on social media also come as calls grow for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Simon Chadwick, Global Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry, says the response in China to the Boston Celtics player could be “different this time around”.
“Such are the current geopolitical sensitivities between the US and China, that Kanter’s comments could be the spark that lights a much bigger fire,” Professor Chadwick told Euronews.
“The Beijing Winter Olympics are looming and speculation is continuing that some may boycott the event.”
“A heavy-handed or excessively nationalistic response could be met by growing calls for athletes not to go to China early next year.”
A history of activism
Enes Kanter has regularly taken a stand on political issues, including against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
His father, Mehmet Kanter, was accused of belonging to the movement founded by the preacher Fethullah Gülen and was considered by Ankara as a terrorist.
The academic was acquitted in June 2020 by a Turkish court after denying any link with this movement.
But the basketball player says he has avoided contact with family members in Turkey for years for fear of exposing them to Ankara.
In January 2019, Kanter skipped his team’s trip to London for fear of reprisals for his opposition to Erdoğan.
On Tuesday, he shared an image on Twitter of the “10th arrest warrant” he had been served “in the last 4 years”.
“It’s very sad because I want to play basketball and I want to be known as a basketball player,” Kanter told Euronews in 2019.
“The Turkish government calls me a terrorist because I speak against the government, which shows there is no freedom of speech in Turkey.”