âMy message to the Chinese government is ‘Free Tibet’,â Kanter said. âUnder the brutal regime of the Chinese government, the fundamental rights and freedoms of the Tibetan people are non-existent.
Kanter, who grew up in Turkey, has already championed various political causes, including criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As a result, he was the subject of death threats and his father’s criminal trial in the country.
His latest comments sparked an almost immediate backlash in China, with fans denouncing Kanter and the Celtics on Chinese social media. The Celtics’ official page on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, has been inundated with requests for the team to punish Kanter or issue a public apology.
A popular Celtics fan page on Weibo said it will not post team updates due to a player’s social media oversights. âFor any behavior that undermines the harmony of nations and the dignity of the homeland, we resolutely resist! the fan page posted.
Meanwhile, the Chinese broadcast of the Celtics-Knicks game was pulled by video streaming site Tencent. The Tencent Sports website has indicated that it will not be broadcasting any upcoming Celtics games live.
At a press conference Thursday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Kanter “was trying to get attention” and that his words “were not worth refuting.”
“We will never accept these attacks to discredit the development and progress of Tibet,” the spokesperson said.
The NBA has yet to comment publicly on the matter. CNN has contacted the NBA and Tencent.
The backlash highlights the league’s struggle to distinguish between allowing social justice activism for its players and appeasing its massive – and lucrative – Chinese market.
The league has invested years and millions of dollars in China, helping to build courts, ceding broadcast rights for free, and bringing in its stars for preseason games.
This significant investment and return means the league is also reluctant to anger its fans and partners in China – something that has perhaps never been clearer than in 2019.
That year, then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey sparked a firestorm when he tweeted his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Shortly after, the Chinese NBA partners suspended relations, the state-owned CCTV broadcaster cut off all preseason game broadcasts, and the Chinese government said the NBA must show “mutual respect.” .
Morey apologized and deleted the tweet, and the NBA said his comments were “regrettable” – sparking outrage from fans in the United States and Hong Kong, who accused the league of censorship and bow to pressure from Beijing.
The loophole that Morey exposed – and now the controversy over Kanter’s comments – highlights the risk of criticizing China, where growing nationalism and patriotic propaganda means foreign critics may face a wave of vitriol in line and boycott calls.
And although Western companies have long made compromises to operate in China, the deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations – and growing nationalism within the economic powerhouse – leaves an increasingly narrow path to travel.