The NBA's Chinese broadcast partner abruptly erased Boston Celtics highlights and live streams from its website and app on Thursday, not long after Celtics center Enes Kanter called China's leader, Xi Jinping, a “brutal dictator."
Kanter, in multiple social media posts Wednesday, spoke out against "cultural genocide" in Tibet, an autonomous region to the west of China where the Chinese government has cracked down on freedoms and exerted control.
The swift response of Tencent, a Chinese internet technology company that in 2019 agreed to a five-year, $1.5 billion expansion of its partnership with the NBA, is reminiscent of the early stages of China's response to Daryl Morey's 2019 tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Morey's words led to an international firestorm, a brief NBA blackout in China and simmering tensions between the league and a country where it boasts millions of fan.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver and other executives moved to quell those tensions. Silver later estimated that the dispute would cost the NBA hundreds of millions of dollars, but the relationship has since improved.
China's various crackdowns on human rights, though, have continued. Among the many alleged abuses are in Tibet. Kanter, who is Turkish, decried them in a minutes-long video and follow-up tweet.
"Free Tibet," Kanter said. "Tibet belongs to Tibetans."
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) October 20, 2021
"Under the Chinese government's brutal rule, Tibetan people's basic rights and freedoms are nonexistent," Kanter continued. "They are not allowed to study and learn their language and culture freely. ... They are not allowed to access information freely. The Tibetan people are not even allowed to worship freely. For more than 70 years, Tibetan monks, nuns, intellectuals, writers, poets, community leaders, athletes and many more have been detained, sent to political re-education classes, subject to torture, lengthy interrogations, and even been executed, simply for exercising the freedom that you and I take for granted."
Kanter, who has also been a vocal opponent of Turkey's authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, went on to detail why he supports Tibetans' "calls for freedom," and concluded with statements such as: "Shame on the Chinese government."
On Wednesday night, at the Celtics' season opener against the New York Knicks, he wore colorful shoes with an all-caps message: "FREE TIBET."
Kanter posted the video one day after meeting with Tibetans at a community center in New York. According to Students for a Free Tibet, a pro-independence group, Kanter heard from Tibetan activists, including one who recently escaped China, and whose uncle died while a political prisoner. Kanter and the Tibetans discussed the parallels between his own exile from Turkey and the persecution many Tibetans face.
Students for a Free Tibet, which has also recently protested the staging of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, welcomed Kanter's public words.
"Thank you Enes Kanter for standing tall against authoritarianism," they said in a tweet.
In China, meanwhile, the backlash was immediate and fierce. According to reports, Chinese social media platforms were filled with angry messages, some calling for a boycott. A Chinese Celtics fan account said that it would stop posting about the team.
Pro-Tibetan independence messages are illegal in China. The Chinese Communist Party considers Tibet part of its empire and has ever since it seized the territory in 1950. It has implemented repressive measures — some of which Kanter detailed in his message — in an attempt to force Tibetans to adopt Chinese culture.
Neither the NBA, the Celtics nor Tencent has issued a public statement on Kanter's comments. Celtics games are still listed on Tencent's website, and accompanied by text and stats. But live streams and highlights for games involving the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — where Morey now works — are not available.