The Boston Celtics’ Enes Kanter has been using his fame and social media accounts to publicly confront the Chinese government for its egregious human rights abuses. Over the past few weeks, the basketball star has released videos calling out “brutal dictator” General Secretary Xi Jinping for assaulting the rights of Tibetans, Uyghurs, Hong Kongers, and Taiwan. Kanter’s advocacy on these issues is unusual for a professional athlete, especially given China’s large sports market. By speaking up, Kanter is proving that athletes can confront the world’s most powerful authoritarian government. More should follow his example.
Last week, Kanter told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that when he recently took to the basketball court with shoes painted with the slogan “Free Tibet,” NBA staff members pleaded with him to take them off. But when he asked if he was breaking any rules, they replied that he was not. Kanter kept the shoes on, but he was not put in to play for the duration of the game. In response to Kanter’s advocacy, Celtics games were cut from the Chinese streaming service Tencent, which pays the NBA more than $1 billion.
Kanter said NBA commissioner Adam Silver had sat down with him regarding his newfound advocacy. To his credit, Silver said the NBA would support Kanter. But Kanter expressed concern regarding how strong that support would truly be, noting that the NBA has not put out a statement defending his right to speak up for human rights. Regardless, this promise from Silver is an improvement over past NBA behavior. The NBA showed notorious cowardice in 2019 when it pressured Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey to retract a tweet he had posted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors.
Of course, many professional athletes have spoken in favor of woke social campaigns in the United States, but Kanter is the first to target the Chinese government. Yet, Kanter isn’t new to confronting dictators. Kanter is Turkish and began speaking up against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s arbitrary imprisonment of political dissidents years ago. In return, his Turkish passport was revoked, and his family members in Turkey were harassed by local authorities. Yet, even during years of speaking out about Turkey’s human rights issues, Kanter never encountered resistance from the NBA until he turned his attention to China.
Chinese leaders work hard to suppress criticisms of its human rights record, not just at home but around the world. Using access to the Chinese market as leverage over American businesses, the Chinese government seeks to shape international discourse in its favor. Hollywood studios change their movies to satisfy the Chinese government and show their films in the world’s largest movie market. American corporations are threatened with the loss of Chinese revenues if they do not lobby the U.S. Congress against bills that enhance America’s competitiveness.
Even American officials don’t demonstrate Kanter’s level of courage. Just last week, a reporter asked President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry whether he raised the issue of human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang with his Chinese counterparts. He responded, “That’s not my lane.” Kerry is a high-level U.S. diplomat, and his “lane” is to represent America’s interests, which include the promotion of human rights. It’s irresponsible to do anything less. Yet, pressure from Kerry’s Chinese counterparts has sparked debate within the Biden administration about whether softer messaging on China’s human rights issues will secure a better climate deal with Chinese leaders. While the Biden administration wrestles with moral confusion, Uyghurs continue to suffer.
The tendency of American businesses and officials to shy away from confronting China makes Kanter stand out. But he doesn’t have to be alone. Kanter’s continued advocacy has not had negative professional repercussions so far. Even in the event that it does cost him, Kanter is ready. In a tweet addressing the Chinese Communist Party, he said, “You can NOT buy me. You can NOT scare me. You can NOT silence me.”
For China-focused human rights activists, Kanter is a breath of fresh air. One that is deeply inspiring and greatly appreciated. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen even thanked Kanter for supporting Taiwan’s democratic government. This should encourage other professional athletes and public figures to follow suit.
Despite widespread fear about speaking out against the Chinese government, Kanter proves that it can be done. Athletes can and should use their influence to advocate on issues that matter, even when that means standing up to a powerful regime known for bullying individuals and businesses around the world. For the victims of the Chinese government whose pleas for help are too often met with timidity or apathy, Kanter and others like him can do a world of good.