Celtics games pulled from Chinese internet after Kanter's Pro-Tibet posts

Enes Kanter during the Boston Celtics' 2019 Christmas Day game against the Toronto Raptors (Alex D'Addese/Sportsnet)

One day after Enes Kanter said on social media that China's leader, Xi Jinping, was a “brutal dictator" because of his government's repressive policies in Tibet, Boston Celtics games were pulled from being streamed on Chinese internet altogether.

Kanter's comments were delivered in a nearly three-minute long video, posted to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on Wednesday.

"I'm here to add my voice and speak out about what is happening in Tibet," Kanter said, wearing a T-shirt with the image of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader who is considered by Beijing to be a criminal separatist. "Under the Chinese government's brutal rule, Tibetan people's basic rights and freedoms are nonexistent."

The Chinese government considers Tibet to be part of its historical empire, despite persistent protests against its rule there. The mountainous region was seized by China in 1950, putting an end to what had been four decade of de facto independence, in what Beijing has called a "peaceful liberation" of the impoverished territory.

Policies employed by Xi Jinping's Communist Party, including heavy surveillance and imprisonment for those who advocate for Tibet's independence, have sought to quash any possibility of a revolt, with the longstanding goal of assimilating Tibetan residents into Chinese society and making Mandarin Chinese -- as opposed to Lhasa Tibetan, the dialect spoken in Tibet -- the dominant language in public life.

"I say, 'Shame on the Chinese government,'" Kanter said. "The Chinese dictatorship is erasing Tibetan identity and culture."

During Wednesday's Celtics game against the New York Knicks, which was not shown on the streaming services that typically broadcast most NBA games to millions in China, Kanter had planned to play wearing a pair of sneakers emblazoned with the words “Free Tibet” and an image of a man self-immolating, a depiction of a desperate form of protest that some Tibetans have resorted to.

The shoes were designed by Badiucao, a prominent China-born dissident and artist based in Australia. Kanter was active for Wednesday's game but did not receive playing time during the double-overtime loss.

"More than 150 Tibetan people have burned themselves alive!! — hoping that such an act would raise more awareness about Tibet," Kanter wrote on Twitter. "I stand with my Tibetan brothers and sisters, and I support their calls for Freedom."

The Chinese internet company that streams NBA games in the country, Tencent, marked recent Celtics games as unavailable for replay as of Thursday. The Tencent Sports website also indicated that upcoming Celtics games would not be live-streamed.

Wednesday's comments weren't Kanter's first foray into weighing in on geopolitical crises. A native of Turkey, Kanter has been an outspoken critic of the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, so much so that Turkish prosecutors have sought his arrest and his Turkish passport was revoked.

They also didn't mark the first time the NBA has found itself navigating political controversies in China.

In 2019, then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, sparking what would amount to a blackout on Tencent and state television provider CCTV for the league in the world's most populous nation.

Games were eventually returned to Tencent's lineup but not CCTV, with the exception of two games during the 2020 NBA Finals. Tencent has not resumed streaming games for the Philadelphia 76ers, Morey's new team, however.

"It's unclear whether we'll be back on CCTV television in China this year," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this week.

The NBA has estimated that the strained relationship with the Chinese and lost broadcast rights meant the league missed out on about $400 million in revenue during the 2019-20 season alone.

During a news conference on Thursday, Wang Wenbin, the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, was asked about Kanter's remarks and called him "clout-chasing, trying to get attention with Tibet-related issues."

Neither the Celtics nor the NBA have publicly commented on Kanter's comments at this time.

For now, the fallout from Kanter's comments does not appear to be as severe as the immediate response to Morey's tweet, which was quickly deleted. Other NBA games played Wednesday were offered on Tencent, and the three games on Thursday's schedule appeared on the provider's listings.

-- Information from the Associated Press and Reuters were used in this story.

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