China’s government stripped Boston Celtics games from the internet in the country on Thursday, after outspoken Celtics player Enes Kanter called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” and criticized Beijing’s autocratic policies in Tibet.
There was no immediate comment from the NBA on the developments, which may mark a new friction point between Chinese authorities and the American sports league that draws billions of dollars of revenue from sales in China.
NBA players and officials have generally steered clear of publicly criticizing China since an incident two years ago in which Beijing briefly stripped NBA games from Chinese television and blocked the sale of Houston Rockets merchandise after the then-general manager of that team, Daryl Morey, had spoken out in support of democracy in Hong Kong.
China’s latest backlash against Kanter, who plays center on the Celtics, was first reported Thursday by The New York Times. Other news outlets had initially reported on Mr. Kanter‘s social media posts before Beijing’s response to them.
Reuters cited a two-minute video that Kanter, who has a history of political statements, posted of himself on Twitter expressing support for Tibet and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the Dalai Lama, the region’s 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, which was posted Wednesday in the United States.
He included a text in a tweet: “Dear Brutal Dictator XI JINPING and the Chinese Government Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people!”
Kanter posted similar messages on his Instagram feed, according to Reuters, which noted that he also wore shoes emblazoned with the phrase “Free Tibet’ in a Celtics game Wednesday against the New York Knicks. The sneakers were made by Baidiucao, a China-born dissident cartoonist and artist based in Australia, the news agency reported.
China’s government has controlled the remote region of Tibet since 1951 and has long drawn international criticism for characterizing the Dalai Lama as a separatist.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news briefing 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,” said Mr. Wang, according to Reuters.
The Times reported that Celtics games were abruptly marked as unavailable for replay through Tencent, the Chinese internet giant that has partnered with the NBA to stream its games in the country. The website for Tencent Sports also indicated that upcoming Celtics games would not be livestreamed.
The paper also reported that a Celtics fan account on the Chinese social platform Weibo had declared it would immediately stop posting about the team, telling some 615,000 Celtics followers on the platform to “Resolutely resist any behavior that damages national harmony and the dignity of the motherland!”
Kanter, 29, is of Turkish heritage and has drawn attention in the past for his outspokenness on international affairs, specifically on developments in his native Turkey. Kanter moved to the U.S. from Turkey while in high school to play basketball. He made global headlines in 2018 by criticizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish authorities subsequently revoked Kanter‘s passport and charged him with belonging to a terrorist group. They’ve since sought to extradite Kanter, who sharply denies the charges.