NBA Star Enes Kanter Speaks Out on Tibet and Xinjiang, and is Promptly Censored in China

Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter made shockwaves this week when he called out “brutal dictator” Chinese President Xi Jinping for human-rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang. His forceful denouncement led to the censorship of his name and the Celtics’ team name from the Chinese internet. It also forced the NBA back into the spotlight, placing the league in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between defending players’ right to free speech and appeasing a lucrative Chinese market.

After meeting Tibetans at a community center in New York, Kanter released a nearly three-minute-long video on Twitter criticizing what he described as a “cultural genocide” against the Tibetan people. Eva Xiao from the Wall Street Journal provided more detail on Kanter’s message

On Wednesday, Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter posted a video on Twitter advocating independence for China’s ethnic Tibetans—an act that would be considered illegal in the country—while criticizing Beijing’s policies in Tibetan regions, such as restrictions on religion and freedom of speech.

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader that Beijing views as a separatist, the Turkish basketball player called on Chinese leader Xi Jinping —whom he called a “brutal dictator”—to “free Tibet.” [Source]

To emphasize his support for the Tibetan people, Kanter even approached Chinese dissident artist Badiucao to create custom-designed shoes painted with the Tibetan flag, the words “Free Tibet,” and flames to represent the over 157 Tibetans who have self-immolated to protest the Chinese government’s human-rights abuses in Tibet. Kanter wore the shoes to the Celtics’ season-opening game against the New York Knicks on Wednesday night. 

ESPN reported that the Dalai Lama congratulated Kanter on his “courageous act” of advocacy:

The Washington, D.C.-based office of His Holiness The Dalai Lama released a statement to ESPN later in the day that read in part: “We are thankful to Enes Kantor, NBA player for speaking in support of Tibet. In a two minutes video message he summed up the existential threat faced by the Tibetans under Chinese communist rule. Every word that he said is true.”

The statement also noted that Kanter’s “courageous act” of advocating on behalf of Tibetan independence came “at the huge risk to his personal life and career.” [Source]

Having already garnered tremendous media attention, Kanter then used his spotlight on Friday afternoon to criticize the Chinese government on yet another pressing issue: the torture and other alleged human-rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In a video over three minutes long, he chastised President Xi Jinping and also called out famous Muslim athletes and politicians for their silence, naming Liverpool F.C.’s Mohamed Salah and former boxing champion Amir Khan, among others. The Guardian described how Kanter held nothing back in his sweeping critique

“Right now as I speak this message, torture, rape, forced abortions, sterilizations, family separations, arbitrary detentions, concentration camps, political reeducation, forced labor … this is all happening right now to more than 1.8 million Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China,” said Kanter, who wore a ‘Freedom for Uyghur’ T-shirt as he spoke into the camera.

“The Chinese government has been taking sweeping measures to crackdown on the Uyghur people simply because they embrace their own religion, their own culture, language, history and identity,” he continued. “The Uyghur region has become an open-air prison and surveillance state where freedoms are non-existent for the Uyghur people. The Chinese government has sent Uyghurs along with Kazaks, Tajiks and other Muslims groups to concentration camps for simply applying for a passport, for texting someone overseas or for believing in anything that does not align with the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda.” 

Kanter went on to single out Pakistani prime minister Imram Khan, Saudi Arabia’s King Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, saying: “It’s shameful and sad how you have decided to prioritize money and business with China over human rights. You call yourself Muslims, but you are just using that for show. You simply do not care about people.” [Source]

Kanter also revealed another pair of custom-made shoes by Badiucao. These were painted with the words “Free Uyghurs” and “Stop Genocide, Torture, Rape, Slave Labor.” 

Soon after Kanter’s first video on Wednesday, the CCP’s censorship apparatus scrubbed Kanter from the Chinese internet. By Thursday, Tencent, which partners with the NBA to stream its games in China, had blocked replays of past Celtics games and deleted listings for future ones. Tencent’s Sogou search engine also deleted search results and pages for Kanter on its WeChat, Baidu, Weibo, Baike, and Zhidao platforms. Eva Dou and Lyric Li from the Washington Post described how some Weibo accounts criticized Kanter and vowed to stop commenting on the Celtics

On Thursday, a Celtics China fan account on Weibo with more than 600,000 followers posted on the Twitter-like platform that it was suspending updates on the Celtics because of a certain NBA player’s social media slights.

“From now on, the homepage will no longer report any information about the Boston Celtics, and our Weibo will stop updating!” read the post from the account, Celtics Weibo Express. “Resolutely resist any behavior that undermines national harmony and the dignity of the motherland!”

A sports blogger with more than 4 million Weibo followers, “Brother Qiang Says Stuff,” declared that there should be zero tolerance for Kanter. Others called for a boycott of the NBA to teach Kanter and others a lesson. [Source]

Criticism of the Chinese government has proven to be a complicated issue for the NBA. In 2019, China accounted for approximately ten percent of the NBA’s revenue, equivalent to about 8 billion U.S. dollars, and was expected to reach twenty percent by 2030. The last major flashpoint occurred in 2019 when Daryl Morey, who was the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted support for Hong Kongers protesting the draconian new National Security Law. His advocacy prompted a backlash that led Chinese media to erase NBA-related articles from websites, Chinese companies to cancel sponsorship deals, and CCTV to cease NBA broadcast coverage, which cost the league about 400 million dollars in lost revenue for the 2019-2020 season alone.

The NBA and some of its star players have also been harshly criticized for prioritizing access to the Chinese market above free speech and human rights. After Morey’s tweet supporting the Hong Kong protesters, the NBA initially disavowed his statement, Houston Rockets star James Harden apologized to China for Morey’s tweet, and Lebron James criticized Morey for not being “educated on the situation.” James and Harden have sponsorship deals with brands making billions of dollars in the Chinese market. In contrast with these athletes, Kanter’s courage in putting human rights above money has drawn praise from many quarters, and raised questions about whether Kanter’s advocacyand flashy “Free Tibet” shoes—were the reason why he was benched during Wednesday’s game: 

Kanter has not shied away from activism in the past. Born in Turkey, he has been an outspoken critic of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who has labeled Kanter a terrorist, revoked his passport, and sought his extradition. In 2020, Kanter called the NBA “scared little rats” for omitting him—perhaps in an effort to avoid angering Erdogan—from its European Instagram page’s graphic featuring the best Turkish basketball players. In 2018, he publicly supported a letter that the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent to the NBA, demanding that it pull out of China. 

Kanter’s activism has already catalyzed action to address human-rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Patrick Blennerhassett from the South China Morning Post reported on recent U.S. government efforts to prevent imports of apparel made by forced labor in Xinjiang, which could affect some NBA players’ lucrative clothing-endorsement deals:

Elsewhere, two US Democrat politicians, Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative James McGovern, the chair and co-chair of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China, released a statement on Thursday.

In it they asked US Customs and Border Protection commissioner Troy Miller if they had stopped imports from companies that have publicly endorsed the use of cotton from China’s Xinjiang region.

[…] The statement criticised NBA players who have deals with Chinese sportswear manufacturers.

“Of particular concern, given the start of a new NBA season, is the continued availability of products from the Chinese sportswear companies Anta, Peak, and Li-Ning, which have high-profile endorsements from NBA players,” the statement said. [Source]

Over the past two years, the international sports world has witnessed a wave of protests against the Chinese government’s alleged human-rights abuses. In late 2019, another Muslim athlete of Turkish descent, the German-born former Arsenal F.C. midfielder Mesut Özil, publicly criticized the Chinese government for human-rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. French national football star Antoine Griezmann cut his sponsorship deal with Huawei in late 2020, after learning that the company had collaborated with the Chinese government to build facial recognition software targeted at Uyghurs. Last week, the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Greece was disrupted by multiple protesters denouncing human-rights abuses in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. One of the organizers of the protests in Greece, the NGO Students for a Free Tibet, coordinated the meeting with Kanter in New York that preceded his first video message. 

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