Boston Celtics star Enes Kanter published a video Wednesday evening condemning China and dictator Xi Jinping by name for the decades-long brutal repression of Tibet, potentially jeopardizing the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) lucrative business ties with the regime.
Kanter has a long history of human rights advocacy that began with criticism of Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of his native Turkey, considered the world’s worst jailer of journalists second only to Xi. Following an alleged coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan shut down dozens of media outlets and arrested thousands of people suspected of opposing his regime. Erdogan’s regime especially persecutes members of Hizmet, an Islamic movement led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, of which Kanter is a member.
Like Turkey before it, China reportedly cut a broadcast of Wednesday’s Celtics game against the New York Knicks abruptly and at least one major Celtics fan page on Weibo, China’s government-controlled social media outlet, announced it would no longer follow the team in response to Kanter’s statement.
Kanter accused the Chinese Communist Party in his video of “cultural genocide” against the Tibetan people, highlighting the violent state campaigns launched to prevent Tibetans from speaking the Tibetan language, engaging in Tibetan cultural rites, and especially practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Kanter appears in the video wearing a shirt bearing the image of the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism who Beijing considers a “terrorist.”
Kanter also debuted sneakers emblazoned with the Tibetan national flag designed by Chinese-Australian dissident artist Badiucao, whose work often promotes campaigns against global dictatorships but particularly focuses on the Chinese Communist Party.
More than 150 Tibetan people have burned themselves alive!! — hoping that such an act would raise more awareness about Tibet.
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021
“Brutal dictator of China Xi Jinping, I have a message for you and your henchmen … free Tibet,” Kanter declares in the video. “I am here to add my voice and speak out about what is happening in Tibet. Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan peoples’ basic rights and freedoms are non-existent.”
Dear Brutal Dictator XI JINPING and the Chinese Government
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021
“They are not allowed to study and learn their language and culture freely. They are not allowed to travel freely. They are not allowed to access information freely. The Tibetan people are not even allowed to worship freely,” Kanter continued. “For more than 70 years, Tibetan monks, nuns, intellectuals, writers … and many more have been detained, sent to political reeducation classes, subject to torture, lengthy interrogations, and even been executed simply for exercising the freedom that you and I take for granted.”
Kanter noted that human rights groups have confirmed the detention of at least 5,000 political prisoners in Tibet in the last 25 years.
“Shame on the Chinese government. The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture,” Kanter stated. “The cultural genocide in Tibet is so stifling that more than 150 people have burned themselves alive hoping that such a horrific act will raise awareness and attention towards the ongoing abuses within Tibet.”
“I cannot stay silent,” he asserted.
Kanter had previously hinted at opposition to the Chinese regime following remarks by basketball player LeBron James in 2019 complaining that a post on Twitter by former Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey supporting protests against communism in Hong Kong had jeopardized James’ multi-million-dollar finances.
“Wow dude!” Kanter wrote on Twitter in response to James’ remarks attacking Morey in 2019, adding a facepalming emoji. Kanter listed the litany of abuses the Erdogan government had committed against him and his family following that comment, adding “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.” Kanter did not, however, name the Chinese regime or weigh in directly on the Morey controversy at the time.
Morey left the Rockets a year after the scandal, which NBA Commissioner Adam Silver lamented publicly cost the league “hundreds of millions” of dollars after the communist regime banned broadcasts of NBA games and halted other business ventures in response to Morey’s comments. Among the many losses for the NBA from the affair – triggered by a simple post on Twitter reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” – was its hosting of a training camp in Urumqi, the capital of the repressed Uyghur region of East Turkestan (Xinjiang) where China is believed to have constructed and currently maintains over 1,000 concentration camps for Muslims.
Kanter has yet to make a statement clearly condemning the Uyghur concentration camps. The situation for Uyghurs in China – the outlawing of their native language and religion, internment in concentration camps, torture, rape, and mutilation – is very similar to that of Tibetans, however. The current repressor running Xinjiang, Chen Quanguo, served as the chief architect of China’s repressive campaign in Tibet before Beijing tasked him with reproducing the cultural genocide in Xinjiang.
Only one NBA player – Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz – has condemned China’s Muslim concentration camps. As he did so in an Instagram story with little fanfare, however, Beijing did not respond with any significant outrage.
The Communist Party did not weigh in on Kanter’s comments regarding James – who Kanter has also dismissively called “princess” – at the time. Addressed directly, however, the Foreign Ministry commented on the Tibet video on Thursday, dismissing Kanter as seeking “attention.”
“We will never accept those attacks to discredit Tibet’s development and progress,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters, adding that Kanter’s comments were “not worth refuting.”
The Chinese broadcaster Tencent abruptly stopped airing the Celtics game on Wednesday as Kanter’s video circulated on the free internet. According to the Washington Post, Tencent is promoting the broadcast of all NBA games that do not feature the Celtics, suggesting a ban on the entire team for the immediate future. Also missing from the schedule are the Philadelphia 76ers, who hired Morey after the Houston Rockets – one of the most popular teams in China – dropped him a year after supporting the Hong Kong protests.
Weibo users, typically prevented from posting remarks that contradict the communist regime, attacked Kanter and demanded another boycott of the NBA similar to the one after the Morey Hong Kong tweet. A Celtics fan page that, according to the Post, attracted 650,000 followers, published a pro-communist rant declaring it would not longer post about the team.
“Any information on the team will cease to appear on this Weibo. Any behavior that undermines the harmony of the nation and the dignity of the motherland, we resolutely resist!” the page declared.