BEIJING (Reuters) – Former National Basketball Association (NBA) star Dwight Howard has triggered a wave of criticism on Chinese social media for calling Taiwan a country in a promotional video with Taiwan’s vice president.
The video, released on Wednesday, showed the U.S. basketball player supporting a campaign for a select number of foreign tourists to spend a night in Taiwan’s presidential office building.
“Hello everyone, I’m Dwight Howard, and since I have come to Taiwan I have gained a whole new appreciation of this country,” Howard said in the video.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and says the island is not a separate country but part of “one China” governed by Beijing. China says it will never renounce the use of force to enforce its claims.
China’s insistence that Taiwan is not a country means that the island is excluded from many international organisations and its athletes compete in international tournaments under the banner “Chinese Taipei”.
It did not take long for a backlash to build following the release of the video. The hashtag #HowardTaiwanindependence went viral on China’s Weibo social media platform, earning almost 400 million hits by Friday.
Many people accused Howard of promoting Taiwan’s independence, which is anathema to Beijing.
Howard last year joined the Taoyuan Leopards, a professional Taiwanese team. The most famous player to ever appear in Taiwan’s T1 League did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vice President William Lai, a contender in Taiwan’s presidential election next year, appeared with Howard, pretending to be directing the video in which Lai refers to Taiwan as a “free country”.
The island’s government rejects China’s sovereignty claims and says only the Taiwanese people can decide their future.
The NBA is hugely popular in China and this was not the first time people linked with the league have sparked controversy there.
In 2019, Chinese broadcasters stopped airing games of the Houston Rockets after general manager Daryl Morey posted a message on Twitter in support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
A similar outcry came in 2021 when Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter denounced China’s treatment of ethnic Uyghur people and other Muslims.
(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista; Editing by Robert Birsel)