A single tweet is once again putting pressure on the NBA’s China business

We’ve seen this happen before.
We’ve seen this happen before.
Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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In 2019, a tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, Daryl Morey, voicing support for Hong Kong protestors unleashed a wave of fury in China. The controversy led several of the National Basketball Association’s partners in China to terminate their broadcast and sponsorship contracts.

Now, a tweet from outspoken Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter urging China to “free Tibet” risks putting the NBA’s multi-billion dollar business under pressure once more.

“Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are non-existent. They are not allowed to study and learn their language,” says the player in a video attached to the Oct. 20 tweet, wearing a black t-shirt carrying an image of the Dalai Lama. The spiritual leader of Tibet has been in decades-long exile for calling for Tibet’s full autonomy.

Kanter also called the Chinese president Xi Jinping a “dictator” in the post. In another tweet, Kanter shared pictures showing sneakers printed with “free Tibet,” and wrote that he supports Tibetans’ call for freedom.

Tibet is officially an autonomous region of China. But rights groups and exiled Tibetans accuse Beijing of religious and political repression in the Himalayan region. Beijing, meanwhile, says it has helped Tibet develop by bringing education and investment to the region. There have been persistent demonstrations against the Chinese rule in Tibet over the years, with the latest one taking place in southern Greece this week.

Kanter, 29, is a veteran NBA player and an outspoken critic of repressive regimes. In 2017, he had his passport revoked by Turkey, where he grew up, for describing president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a dictator and lunatic.

How has China reacted to Kanter’s Tibet tweet?

As of this morning, Chinese tech giant Tencent has pulled all live-streams of Boston Celtics games, according to Bloomberg.

Kanter’s attack has yet to spark much backlash against the NBA on Chinese social media—but that’s not because people don’t care. Under China’s blanket censorship, media outlets often refrain from reporting matters deemed too sensitive by Beijing, such as criticism of Chinese leaders. This seems to be the case for Kanter’s tweet, which so far has seen almost no media coverage in China. On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, searches of Kanter’s name in both Chinese and English returned no results, with a few influencers and users making vague criticisms of the NBA star, who argue without context that the player should be fired from the team.

If the backlash over Morey’s support of pro-Hong Kong protestors showed anything, it is that the episode risks developing into a PR crisis for the NBA. Morey’s support was seen as offensive by Chinese audiences, who viewed the anti-government protests in Hong Kong that year as a malicious attempt to separate the autonomous city from its motherland. The tweet led China’s state broadcaster to immediately suspend its broadcast of the NBA games, a ban which seems to still be in place. Other sponsors of the league also quickly cut their ties with it that year. Tencent, whose exclusive digital partnership with the NBA runs through the 2024-25 season, also temporarily halted streaming of the NBA’s preseason games at the peak of the national fury against the league in October 2019, when the tweet was posted, and later deleted, by Morey.

Two years later, and Morey is still facing the wrath of Chinese censorship. Tencent has resumed streaming NBA games except those featuring the Philadelphia 76ers, which Morey joined as as president of basketball operations last year, according to the South China Morning Post. Morey has apologized over his Hong Kong tweet, saying he “did not intend to cause any offense” to Chinese fans and that he has had the opportunity to”hear and consider other perspectives.”

China is one of the most important markets for the NBA, where it is hugely popular. Prior to Morey’s tweet, one report estimated that the league saw around 10% of its global revenues in 2019 from the country [the league does not publicly disclose revenue breakdowns by region.] Although the impact for the NBA seems limited for now, Kanter’s strongly worded criticism of Beijing and Xi Jinping comes at a sensitive time, when space for dissent in the country is increasingly shrinking. This episode could again damage the league’s image in China, just as it recovers from the 2019 incident.

The NBA and Tencent didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment. Kanter has yet to comment on the controversy.