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Former Nba Star Dwight Howard Sparks Backlash in China After Calling Taiwan a ‘Country’

CNN — Former NBA player Dwight Howard has become the latest international sports star to be caught in the crosshairs of Chinese nationalist wrath after he referred to Taiwan as a “country” in a promotional video alongside the democratic island’s vice president.

The 37-year-old eight-time NBA All-Star has enjoyed huge popularity in Taiwan since joining its professional team Taoyuan Leopards from the Los Angeles Lakers in November last year.

“Since I came to Taiwan, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of this country. This place makes me feel so much love,” Howard said in a two-minute online video.

Taiwan is a self-ruled democracy with its own military, currency, constitution and elected government, although it is not officially recognized as an independent country by most governments in the world.

China’s ruling Communist Party claims Taiwan as its own territory, despite having never controlled it, and has refused to rule out the use of force to “unify” the island with mainland China.

The Taiwan issue is a central piece to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s vision of “national rejuvenation,” a nationalistic agenda that has stoked cross-strait tensions to their highest in decades.

Under growing economic, diplomatic and military pressure from China, Taiwan has sought to promote its robust democratic system and free and open society to win friends internationally.

The video, released Wednesday, is part of the island’s promotional campaign to invite foreign tourists to spend a night at the Presidential Office Building in Taipei.

Howard appeared in the video alongside Taiwan Vice President William Lai, who has been nominated by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party as its candidate for the presidential election next year.

When Lai told Howard international travelers can enjoy an overnight stay with breakfast at the Presidential Office Building, the basketball star exclaimed: “That is crazy! I don’t even know that’s legal in my country or not.”

“That’s why Taiwan is a free country,” Lai replied.

“OK! I like it,” Howard said.

The video sparked immediate furor in China after it was reposted on Chinese social media.

On Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, users accused Howard of supporting Taiwan independence and demanded an apology from him.

The hashtag “Howard Taiwan independence” became the top trending topic on Weibo on Friday morning, and garnered more than 400 million views by the afternoon.

Meanwhile, censors have quietly taken down the full video, in which Howard heaped praise on Taiwan for its hospitality, “great and friendly living environment” and “great diverse culture.”

It also showed the interior of the Presidential Office Building, a large suite for the overnight stay, and tourists posing for photos with Taiwan’s military honor guards.

Zhongnanhai, an imperial garden in central Beijing that serves as the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, is strictly off the limits to tourists for visits, let alone an overnight stay.

Amid growing anger, Howard on Friday described his use of the word “country” as a “communication barrier.”

“Where I’m from if I say I wanna go to the country, it doesn’t not mean that place is a country. It’s just how we talk,” he told Taiwanese reporters during an event in Yilan county.

“If I offended anyone in China I apologize. It was not my intention to harm anyone with what I said in the commercial,” he said.

“I am not a politician. I don’t want to get involved in any politics… I have the utmost respect for Chinese people and utmost respect for Taiwanese people, so it was never my intent to disrespect nobody.”

Howard’s team did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.

Under Washington’s longstanding “one China” policy, the US acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, but has never officially recognized the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to the democratic island of more than 23 million. Under the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is also bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

In a statement to CNN, Taiwan’s Presidential Spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said it was “sad” to see some Chinese internet users “have their hearts broken.”

“We do not intend to break their hearts. We welcome them to stay in Taiwan for a few nights. If you know more about Taiwan, you will know why politicians, athletes, tourists, and entrepreneurs from all over the world like to come to our country,” she said.

This is not the first time figures linked to the NBA have sparked controversy in China, where it is among the most popular international sports leagues.

In 2021, Enes Kanter, center for the Boston Celtics, called Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” over China’s treatment of Tibet, sparking an immediate backlash.

Two years earlier then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey set off a firestorm when he tweeted his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Soon after, the NBA’s Chinese partners suspended ties, state broadcaster CCTV halted all broadcasts of preseason matches, and the Chinese government said the NBA needed to show “mutual respect.”

Morey apologized and deleted the tweet, and the NBA said his comments were “regrettable” — prompting outrage from fans in the United States and Hong Kong, who accused the league of censorship and bowing to Beijing’s pressure.

International brands and businesses have also found themselves the targets of vocal consumer boycotts on the mainland if they are seen to describe Taiwan as being separate or sovereign.

In 2021, Hollywood star John Cena had to profess his love for China after calling Taiwan a “country” during an interview promoting a film that generated a backlash among Chinese fans.

Taiwan first began allowing visitors to stay at the Presidential Office Building complex in 2019, when it attracted 167 applications from 33 countries.

The campaign, organized by the General Association of Chinese Culture (GACC), a non-government organization in Taiwan, was restarted this year after being suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It allows a maximum of 20 foreign visitors to spend one night in the complex free of charge, but they are required to turn their experience into social media videos to promote tourism in Taiwan, according to the island’s Central News Agency.

Responding to the outrage in China against the promotional video, GACC Secretary-General Lee Hou-ching said: “Taiwan is a democratic, pluralistic, friendly country with freedom of speech. We are used to having different voices in our daily lives and respect everyone’s right to speak.”

Source : CNN