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Enes Kanter goes hard in the paint, and not just on the basketball court. The Boston Celtics center also has a history of standing up to authoritarian leaders, especially the increasingly undemocratic regime of Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey where Kanter was raised.
Kanter’s recent criticism of human rights abuses in China, including calling President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator,” have apparently gotten the Celtics ejected from Chinese streaming service Tencent. This basically proves Kanter’s point. Criticism and dissent generally lead to authoritarian leaders, and the industries they control, crying foul.
In various statements on Twitter, Kanter has taken shots at Chinese actions in Tibet along with the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.
“More than 150 Tibetan people have burned themselves alive!! — hoping that such an act would raise more awareness about Tibet. I stand with my Tibetan brothers and sisters, and I support their calls for Freedom,” Kanter wrote on Twitter last Wednesday.
He also wore shoes that said “Free Tibet” during last Wednesday’s game, though he did not play any minutes in that game.
“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,” Kanter said in a video last Friday.
China’s communist government has faced repeated allegations of human rights abuses for detaining Muslims in the region of Xinjiang. The government first denied that detention camps even existed, but later started to call them “vocational” facilities aimed at countering radicalism and separatism.
That’s the kind of shifting doublespeak one would expect from an authoritarian government. More of that was on display in the reaction to Kanter’s comments.
The Celtics now join the Philadelphia 76ers as two NBA teams whose games are not shown on Tencent. Current 76ers executive Daryl Morey drew the ire of Chinese officials in 2019 when he tweeted in support of pro-democracy efforts in Hong Kong. Chinese state broadcasting stopped showing NBA games altogether after that tweet from Morey, who worked for the Houston Rockets at the time.
In addition to Celtics games being dropped, searches for Kanter have reportedly been blocked on Chinese social media site Weibo. Both Tencent and Weibo are entwined with Chinese government censorship.
“The player you mentioned was clout-chasing, trying to get attention with Tibet-related issues,” Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said last week when asked about Kanter’s posts, according to the Associated Press. “His wrong remarks are not worth refuting.”
It’s not just Kanter who says that China is restricting religious freedom of Buddhists in Tibet, or systematically abusing the Uygur people. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has said China has committed “acts of genocide” against the Uyghurs. In 2020, a group of 39 mostly western nations criticized China for its treatment of minority groups. That followed similar criticism from 50 independent United Nations human rights experts.
So when an NBA blogger in China said Kanter should focus on basketball, all we see is a continuation of deflection. When Kanter is basically being told to “shut up and dribble,” it’s probably because Chinese officials are getting dunked on by the truth.