Ex-NBA player Dwight Howard faces backlash after wrongly calling Taiwan a 'country,' falling into secessionists' trap
Published: May 12, 2023 09:25 PM
Dwight Howard. Photo: VCG

Dwight Howard. Photo: VCG

Dwight Howard, a former NBA star who was once popular in the Chinese mainland, faced a backlash from Chinese netizens and sports fans after he and Lai Ching-te, the head of Taiwan's secessionist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), called Taiwan island a "country" in a promotional video. Although he made an informal apology on Friday, it was not considered sincere.

In the promotional video made public by DPP authorities on Wednesday, Howard and Lai invite visitors from around the world to visit the island's "presidential palace" and experience the "diverse, hospitable and welcoming Taiwan." Howard, who has struggled to find work in the NBA, joined the Taoyuan Leopards of the Taiwan region's local league in November 2021 for more than $200,000 a month, far more than he could get in the NBA, according to media reports.

Howard called secessionist Lai the "vice president" and said he has gained "a whole new appreciation of this country" since he arrived on the island. 

Howard's words and deeds quickly triggered a strong reaction across social media on the mainland, with the hashtag "Howard a pro-Taiwan secessionist" soon trending as a top three topic on Sina Weibo's trending list. Netizens swarmed to the topic of more than 390 million reads and demanded that Howard apologize. 

Meanwhile, thousands of netizens flocked to Howard's own Weibo account, stressing that Taiwan is part of China and that they will no longer be his fan.

Howard once enjoyed huge popularity on the Chinese mainland, where fans affectionately nicknamed the former Rockets and Lakers center "the magic beast." He made tours of the Chinese mainland multiple times and has visited many cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Guangzhou.

During that time, he tried Chinese food and even took the subway in Beijing and chatted with elderly women and children, prompting many Chinese netizens to praise him for his friendly nature. In 2015, Howard signed a contract with Chinese sports brand Peak for more than 100 million yuan ($14.4 million) for four years. 

When asked about the incident on Friday, Howard apologized during his visit to a primary school, saying he did not mean to harm anyone. As for the term "country," he said the word does not necessarily mean a nation, sometimes it's just a place he stays in. However, his phrasing that made a distinction between Chinese and "Taiwanese" shows that he's not entirely apologetic.

"The incident exposed Howard's ignorance of Chinese history and politics…  He was apparently used as a propaganda tool by Taiwan secessionists," said Wang Yu-ching, a Taiwan cross-Straits observer who lives in the Chinese mainland.

Lai is a diehard secessionist and will not miss any opportunity to play tricks, including using Howard's international popularity to promote "Taiwan secession" on social media, Wang said. 

Lai is the DPP candidate for the 2024 Taiwan regional leaders' election, and his campaign office will formally open on June 1, while the main opposition force KMT is expected to announce its candidate next week, Taiwan-based media reported on Thursday.

Since Howard joined the Taiwan league in November 2021, the eight-time NBA All-Star has been sharing local food and attractions of Taiwan on Instagram, which pro-secessionist media hailed as "increasing Taiwan's visibility on the world stage."

Former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom was an earlier case of endorsing Taiwan secessionists and smearing the mainland over China's core interests and internal affairs, such as those involving Xinjiang and Xizang.

Coral Lu, a Chinese sports reporter based in the US, commented on Weibo that many NBA players are not very well educated and probably don't know anything about the Taiwan question. 

Some netizens pointed out that Howard, who lost his job in the NBA and has been sued for violence and child abuse, may be short of money while the Taiwan authorities are willing to pay him for secessionist endorsements. 

However, more netizens believe that Howard should not be so ignorant about violating the red line of the Chinese people.

Howard has closed the door on further cooperation with major international brands with a presence in the Chinese mainland market, and will probably affect other NBA players who want to come to the Chinese mainland, said a netizen.

NBA stars normally value the huge Chinese market, but Howard probably already knew he's passed his prime there, said another.