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China censors Celtics games after player calls for free Tibet, says Xi Jinping is ‘brutal dictator’

The shoes worn by Enes Kanter (13) of the Boston Celtics with the wording "Free Tibet". (Sarah Stier/Getty Images/TNS)

On Tuesday, ahead of the Celtics’ matchup with the Knicks, Enes Kanter met with Tibetans and students at the Tibetan Community Center in Queens. He came out of that meeting blasting the Chinese government for its treatment of Tibet.

“My message to the Chinese government is Free Tibet,” Kanter said in a video Wednesday. “Tibet belongs to Tibetans. 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 nonexistent.”

In the tweet sharing the video, Kanter called Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.”

The reaction was quick and predictable. Celtics games were pulled off Tencent, the Chinese streaming service that carries NBA games, after Kanter’s statement. NBA games have been streaming service-only in China since Daryl Morey’s 2019 tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong while he was the GM of the Houston Rockets. (Morey’s new team — the Sixers — don’t appear on Tencent either.)

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry accused Kanter of “clout-chasing, trying to get attention with Tibet-related issues,” according to the Washington Post.

Kanter has spent much of the last few years speaking up politically on a wide range of issues. There has been a warrant out for his arrest in his native Turkey since 2019 because of his strident criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; more recently, he has ripped professional athletes for even lukewarm stances on the COVID-19 vaccine, saying he was “disappointed” that LeBron James wouldn’t push for broad vaccination.

Kanter wore shoes that said Free Tibet on them but did not get off the bench in Wednesday night’s double-overtime loss to the Knicks. Kanter was the Knicks’ starting center in 2017-18, appearing in 115 games over parts of two seasons in New York.

“China has imposed an information blackout on Tibet and Kanter’s exceptionally powerful statement in support of Tibetan independence will help bring the Sino-Tibetan conflict back into the spotlight,” one of the activists Kanter met with in Queens said in a statement. “Unfortunately, gaining and maintaining access to the vast Chinese marketplace means it is exceedingly rare for professional athletes to speak out against China’s human rights abuses and occupation of Tibet.”

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