HONG KONG — Former NBA star Dwight Howard faced a wave of fury in China on Friday after referring to Taiwan as a “country” in a promotional video.
Howard, 37, made the comment as he appeared alongside the island's vice president, William Lai-Chingte, to promote a contest that will allow the winners to spend a night in Taiwan's presidential office.
“Since I came to Taiwan, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of this country,” said the eight-time NBA All-Star, who in November as a free agent signed with the Taoyuan Leopards in the Taiwanese city of Taoyuan after leaving the Los Angeles Lakers
Lai, who plays the director of the commercial, also described Taiwan as a "free country" in the video that was published Wednesday.
Howard, who is well known in China, where the NBA is very popular, immediately faced backlash on the popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo, where “#HowardTaiwanindependence” began trending almost immediately.
By Friday the hashtag had received almost 400 million views on the Twitter-style site, which is heavily censored by government moderators.
“You were my idol, but not anymore,” one user wrote. Another wrote that Taiwan was “an inseparable part of China,” reflecting Beijing's policy toward the island, which sits around 100 miles off China's southeastern coast.
Beijing views Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway province that is part of China's territory. When the civil war in China between the communists and nationalists ended in 1949 with the former triumphant, the latter set up a rival government in Taipei.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. has officially only recognized China. Under the “One China” policy, Washington acknowledges Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China without endorsing it and maintains unofficial relations with Taipei.
In addition to social media backlash, Howard was criticized by China's hawkish state-run nationalist tabloid, The Global Times. In an editorial, the newspaper called for him to apologize.
Its former editor, Hu Xijin, also took to Weibo to accuse Howard of being a “person who is hasty and seeks immediate benefits.” He said that Howard was making “fast money” in Taiwan because he is aware of his fading popularity.
Howard moved to clarify his comments Friday during a visit to a primary school in northern Taiwan.
“If I offended anyone in China, I apologize,” he said. “It was not my intention to harm anyone with what I said in the commercial.”
He added that when he used the word “country,” he did not mean that Taiwan was a sovereign nation.
However, some Weibo users were less than impressed. “This is not an apology, this is just sophistry,” one wrote.
This is not the first time a basketball star has incurred the wrath of Chinese social media users.
In 2021, then-Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter was widely criticized after he posted a video to social media in which he labeled Chinese President Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” and voiced support for Tibet’s independence.
Tencent, which as the NBA’s digital streaming partner in China attracts a half-billion viewers a season, later pulled a broadcast of the Celtics’ game against the New York Knicks, and searches for Kanter’s name appeared to have been blocked on Weibo.
The center later changed his name to Enes Kanter Freedom.
Two years earlier, then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey apologized for a tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong after several sponsors bailed on the team.