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China’s Tight Grip on Speech: Dwight Howard Draws Fire

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Former NBA star Dwight Howard has drawn a fierce backlash in China after he referred to Taiwan as a “country” in a promotional video alongside the island’s vice president. The 37-year-old basketball player’s remarks were criticized in China, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province. Howard, who is known for his popularity in China where basketball is immensely popular, moved to Taiwan to play in the local league after leaving the Los Angeles Lakers in 2022.

In the two-minute-long promotional video released on Wednesday, Howard expressed his appreciation for Taiwan since his arrival in the country. He said, “Since I came to Taiwan, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of this country. This place makes me feel so much love.” Taiwan’s Vice President Lai Ching-te, who played the director in the commercial, referred to Taiwan as a “free country” and mentioned that people staying at the Presidential Office might encounter President Tsai Ing-wen when going out for a late-night snack.

The video immediately faced strong criticism in China. The hashtag “Howard Taiwan independence” began trending on the social media platform Weibo and garnered over 400 million views. Many Chinese social media users accused Howard of supporting Taiwan independence and demanded an apology from him. A basketball-focused account posted, “Is he crazy? The promotional video has obvious Taiwan independence characteristics, how could he agree to do it?” Howard’s official Weibo account, with 1.6 million followers, was flooded with negative comments, with one saying, “Goodbye Howard, I will never like you again.”

The state-owned newspaper Global Times reported that Chinese people were demanding an apology from Howard. Taiwanese citizens also weighed in on the controversy, with one Facebook user writing, “You won’t be able to find this kind of freedom in China,” referring to the opportunity to spend a night at the Presidential Office.

On Friday, during a public event in Taiwan, Howard attempted to clarify his remarks and expressed his regret if anyone in China was offended. He stated, “It was not my intention to harm anyone. I don’t want to get involved in any politics. I am a human, and I have the right to speak.” Howard’s team, the Taoyuan Leopards, did not respond to the BBC’s request for comment.

(But note that in China, he does NOT have the right to speak…)

This incident is not the first time a U.S. basketball star has faced controversy involving China. In 2021, Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter faced backlash after calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.” Tensions between China and Taiwan have been escalating in recent years, with China conducting military exercises and asserting its claim over the island.

This incident echoes similar controversies involving U.S. basketball stars and their clashes with China’s strict political sensitivities, revealing the escalating tensions between China and Taiwan in recent years and the challenges faced by those who dare to express their opinions. The incident serves as a stark reminder of the importance of preserving free speech and the right to express individual perspectives without fear of retribution or suppression.

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