Celtics Games Are Pulled in China After Enes Kanter’s Pro-Tibet Posts

Boston Celtics games were abruptly pulled from the Chinese internet on Thursday after a center on the team, Enes Kanter, said on social media that the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, was a “brutal dictator,” citing his government’s repressive policies in Tibet.

The incident could spell fresh trouble for the N.B.A. in China. The league has millions of devoted fans there but has also just spent two years mending its image in the country after a Houston Rockets executive tweeted support in 2019 for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

That tweet, by Daryl Morey, who now works for the Philadelphia 76ers, was quickly deleted, though not before setting off an uproar in China. Sponsors in the country severed ties and the state-run broadcaster stopped airing games, leading to financial fallout that the league estimated cost it hundreds of millions of dollars.

That incident brought about a torrent of criticism of the N.B.A. from within the United States as well. Many politicians across the ideological spectrum said that the league was being too deferential to an authoritarian government. Some of the league’s top players, like LeBron James and James Harden, were denounced for not standing firmly behind Morey.

“It’s unclear whether we’ll be back on CCTV television in China this year,” Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., told reporters on Monday, referring to China’s state-run broadcaster. “Our projections are not dependent on it. I will say we’ve been back on Tencent, the streaming service in China, for some time now, and will be when the season starts.”

Geopolitical tensions and rising nationalism have made China a minefield for multinational companies, whose access to the country’s 1.4 billion consumers is often contingent on not taking the “wrong” stance on issues such as Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Since Morey’s tweet, there have been a few signs that tensions between the N.B.A. and the Chinese government were thawing. Tencent, after initially stopping N.B.A. broadcasts, resumed airing games soon after the initial furor over Morey’s post began to recede. After Kobe Bryant died in early 2020, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, released a statement paying tribute to the former N.B.A. star, who has a large fan base in China. Later that year, Chinese state-run television aired some finals games between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat.

Silver has been steadfast in saying that he hoped that the rift between the N.B.A. and China would heal, citing cultural benefits. There are also financial benefits for the league, a notion that lawmakers in the United States, particularly conservatives, have attacked the N.B.A. over.

But ultimately, the N.B.A. and the Chinese government are still on the outs. Joe Tsai, owner of the Nets and the co-founder of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, told Bloomberg last year, “Once you’re on the air, everything will come back.”

Representatives for the N.B.A. and the Celtics did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Kanter did not respond to text messages.

In a video that was posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on Wednesday, Kanter spoke into the camera for nearly three minutes and decried what he called a “cultural genocide” in Tibet.

“I say, ‘Shame on the Chinese government,’” he said, wearing a T-shirt with the image of the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a criminal separatist. “The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture.”

Another social media post by Kanter on Wednesday showed off sneakers emblazoned with Tibetan flag motifs and the words “Free Tibet.”

By Thursday, recent Celtics games were marked as unavailable for replay through Tencent, the Chinese internet giant that has partnered with the N.B.A. to stream its games in the country. The website for Tencent Sports also indicated that upcoming Celtics games would not be livestreamed.

Tencent Sports has not been livestreaming games involving the 76ers, either. The team hired Morey last year as president of basketball operations.

A Tencent spokeswoman declined to comment.

On the Chinese social platform Weibo, a Celtics fan account declared that it would immediately stop posting about the team.

The account told its 615,000 Weibo followers: “Resolutely resist any behavior that damages national harmony and the dignity of the motherland!”

China considers Tibet part of its historical empire, though the authorities have long confronted protests against their rule there. The Communist Party under Mr. Xi has intensified efforts to defray ethnic tensions by encouraging the region’s residents to assimilate into Chinese society and making Mandarin Chinese the dominant language in public life.

Kanter, who is of Turkish heritage, has been a prominent critic of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and one of the most outspoken players in the N.B.A. He is active on social media and frequently posts pictures with a wide range of political figures, ranging from Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top advisor, to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts.

Turkish prosecutors have sought Kanter’s arrest, and his Turkish passport has been revoked. He has expressed concern that Turkish agents might kill him overseas.

When James referred to Morey as “uninformed” in reference to the China post which caused the uproar, Kanter was publicly critical of James in multiple social media posts, at one point writing “Wow dude!” in reference to James.

Kanter also added, while listing several threats against his own life, “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.”

Elsie Chen contributed reporting.

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