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International relations

NBA star faces China backlash after comments on Xi and Tibet

Celtics center Enes Kanter calls Chinese president 'brutal dictator'

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter during Celtics Media Day in Canton MA. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)   © Reuters

SHANGHAI (Reuters) -- Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter was pilloried on Chinese social media and his name appeared to be blocked on the popular Weibo messaging platform after he criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping and China's treatment of Tibet.

Kanter, who has a history of activism against his native Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan, tweeted a two-minute video of himself expressing support for Tibet and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the Dalai Lama, its exiled spiritual leader.

"I'm here to add my voice and speak out about what is happening in Tibet. Under the Chinese government's brutal rule, Tibetan people's basic rights and freedoms are non-existent," Kanter said in the video posted on Wednesday in U.S. time, along with text describing Xi as a "brutal dictator."

Kanter posted similar messages on his Instagram feed. On Wednesday, he wore shoes emblazoned with the phrase "Free Tibet" during the game against the New York Knicks made by Baidiucao, a dissident China-born cartoonist and artist based in Australia.

China's Tencent Holdings Ltd was not showing highlights from the Celtics' Wednesday overtime loss to the New York Knicks on its sports platform. There was a written timeline of the game available.

Celtics games were pulled from the Chinese internet, The New York Times reported.

Tencent did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news briefing on Thursday that Kanter was "trying to get attention" and that his remarks "were not worth refuting."

"We will never accept those attacks to discredit Tibet's development and progress," he said.

Kanter's remarks, and the backlash, come two years after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's comments in support of the democracy movement in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong prompted state broadcaster CCTV to cease broadcasting NBA games and e-commerce vendors to remove listings for Rockets merchandise.

The tweet also followed the Wednesday arrival of the Olympic torch in Beijing, whose scheduled hosting of the Winter Games in February 2022 has prompted calls for boycotts over Chinese treatment of Tibet, Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong.

As of mid-Thursday in China, Kanter's Chinese-language surname and full name yielded only one search result, compared with multiple results earlier in the morning.

Weibo did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the NBA in China did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and the Boston Celtics did not respond to requests for comment.

Beijing has ruled the remote western region of Tibet since 1951, after its People's Liberation Army marched in and took control in what it calls a "peaceful liberation," and considers the Dalai Lama a separatist.

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.

Twitter is blocked in China.

"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's administrator wrote.

On the Celtics' official Weibo page, more than 100 commentators left comments on Thursday criticising the club and Kanter, with some calling for him to be fired.

"I've been an old Celtics fan for more than 10 years. After Kanter did this, I won't support the Celtics team a single day any longer. Between my hobbies and my country, there's no comparison," wrote one commentator.

An outspoken critic of Turkish leader Erdogan, Kanter, 29, was indicted in his home country in 2018 on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group, which he denies. Turkey, which revoked his passport, is seeking his extradition. 

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