BOSTON (Bloomberg) - A pro-Tibet tweet by Boston Celtics basketball player Enes Kanter could spell more trouble for the National Basketball Association (NBA) in China, just two years after the league became a flashpoint in United States-China relations.
The player denounced President Xi Jinping as a "brutal dictator" and criticised China's rule over Tibet in a message that contained a nearly three-minute video.
"Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people!" Kanter wrote in the tweet.
Wearing a black T-shirt with an image of the Dalai Lama, Kanter said in the video he could no longer "stay silent."
"Under the Chinese government's brutal rule, Tibetan people's basic rights and freedoms are non-existent," he added.
As of Thursday morning in Hong Kong, internet giant Tencent Holdings pulled off all live-streaming for upcoming Celtics games, leaving confused fans wondering why in the comment section of its sports page.
The NBA and its China arm did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Bloomberg News. Tencent also did not respond.
Kanter was "grandstanding" to "draw eyeballs," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular press conference in Beijing on Thursday, without mentioning the NBA.
"We welcome those objective friends to visit Tibet, but in the meantime, we will never accept any smear and attacks against Tibet's progress and development," he added.
The NBA is the most popular US sports league in China and its business there is already a billion-dollar enterprise.
In 2019, a tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong spurred backlash from Chinese fans and corporate sponsors.
State broadcaster CCTV suspended showings of NBA contests for about a year and Tencent, which had just signed a US$1.5 billion (S$2 billion) deal to stream NBA games online in China, halted the service for about a week.
While Kanter has been vocal on political issues before, his latest comment triggered some anger on Weibo, one of China's largest social media platforms. Some users said the player should be fired and called for a boycott of the NBA.
But by noon China time, discussion of the incident seemed to have been censored on the platform, with searches of "Kanter" in Chinese and English returning no results. "Celtics" still delivered results, but posts about the Kanter episode, which earlier also came with the related searches, disappeared from the results.
One Chinese influencer, who has more than 614,000 followers on Weibo and posts regularly about the Celtics, said they would stop commenting on the team.
"We resolutely boycott any behavior that will undermine ethnic harmony and the motherland's dignity," the account, which goes by the name "Weibo express of the Celtics," said in the post on Thursday.
China's tolerance of outside criticism has waned significantly under Xi, with companies regularly caught in the cross-hairs. Swedish clothing giant Hennes & Mauritz AB came under fire earlier this year for comments on accusations of forced labour in the cotton industry in the contentious Xinjiang region.
The fallout also spread to Nike Inc, and H&M's sales took a hit, with its stores removed from Chinese mapping apps.