Basketball player Dwight Howard recently stepped into the middle of an international foreign policy controversy by referring to Taiwan as a “country,” drawing criticism from neighboring communist China.
Howard starred in a commercial for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, promoting Taiwan’s tourism industry. In the commercial, which was released Thursday, the basketball player said, “I’m Dwight Howard and since I came to Taiwan I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of this country.”
Howard, who previously played basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers, recently concluded his first season playing in Taiwan’s T1 basketball league, playing for the Taoyuan Leopards. In his video promoting Taiwan’s tourism industry, Howard expressed his appreciation for the hospitality he has received.
“This place makes me feel so much love and I experience so much hospitality with friendly and great living environment with such a great diverse culture,” he said.
Howard was joined in the commercial by Taiwan Vice President William Lai. In an on-screen interaction, the basketball player also described meeting Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, while going out for a late-night snack.
“That is crazy. I don’t even know if that’s legal in my country or not,” Howard said.
“That’s why Taiwan is a free country,” Lai answered.
“Okay, I like it,” Howard replied.
Across the Taiwan Strait, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Taiwanese tourism commercial became the target of criticism. While Taiwan governs itself as an independent democratic nation, the Chinese regime and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officially consider the island a part of PRC territory.
Though the PRC has never held administrative control over Taiwan, CCP officials consider the island a breakaway province and often describe aspirations for “reunification.” CCP officials have not ruled out the use of military force to achieve this reunification and regularly deploy military forces around Taiwan.
The fact that the Taiwanese tourism commercial featured Howard alongside Taiwan’s Vice President, along with the pair repeatedly referring to Taiwan as a country, created the impression that the commercial was an endorsement of Taiwanese independence.
The hashtag #HowardTaiwanindependence went viral on China’s Weibo social media platform, earning almost 400 million hits by Friday.
Howard Walks Back ‘Country’ Description
Howard apologized for his comments about Taiwan on Friday.
The basketball player suggested his use of the word “country” was colloquial and that he wasn’t necessarily declaring Taiwan an independent nation.
“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, according to CNN.
“If I offended anyone in China, I apologize. It was not my intention to harm anyone with what I said in the commercial. I am not a politician. I don’t want to get involved in any politics,” Howard said, adding, “I have the utmost respect for Chinese people and utmost respect for Taiwanese people, so it was never my intent to disrespect nobody.”
NTD News reached out to Howard’s team for comment but did not receive a response by the time this article was published.
The Chinese reaction to Howard’s Taiwan comments and his subsequent apology are similar to a 2021 incident in which professional wrestler and actor John Cena referred to Taiwan as a country.
During a May 8, 2021, interview to promote the latest “Fast & Furious,” Cena said, “Taiwan is the first country [in the world] that will screen Fast & Furious 9 (F9).” The comment caught the attention of Chinese audiences, including the state-run Global Times and Cena made an apology video soon after.
“I made one mistake. I have to say something very, very, very important now,” Cena said, speaking in Mandarin. “I love and respect China and Chinese people. I’m very, very sorry about my mistake. I apologize, I apologize, I’m very sorry. You must understand that I really love, really respect China and the Chinese people. My apologies.”
Many of Cena’s American fans accused him of appeasing the CCP by apologizing.
CCP Condemns US Ties With Taiwanese Leaders
Lawmakers in the United States have faced criticism and threats from China for meeting with and sharing support for Taiwanese officials.
China launched extensive military drills around Taiwan last August, in an apparent show of force after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited the island.
China’s foreign ministry also condemned Pelosi’s successor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after he hosted Tsai in California in April.
“This is a serious violation of the one-China principle and the provisions of the three China-US joint communiqués,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said of Tsai’s visit with McCarthy. “It seriously infringes upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and sends an egregiously wrong signal to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces. China firmly opposes and strongly condemns it.”
Around the same time McCarthy met with Tsai in the United States, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) led a congressional delegation to Taiwan. On Friday, McCaul told NTD News he received a threatening email from the CCP, telling him not to visit Taiwan. The threats only grew once his congressional delegation arrived.
“Once I landed on the island, I got briefings from our military that they were starting to surround the island with their armada of battleships, 10 of them, including an aircraft carrier, and 70 fighter jets by the time, two days later, we were leaving, they had encircled the island. And they were trying to intimidate me, but we’re not gonna let them intimidate us,” McCaul said.
“And then, finally, I was advised that I had been sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party as I left the country, but I had every right to visit President Tsai under the Taiwan Relations Act. And quite frankly, I view it as a badge of honor,” he added.
Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) described receiving a similar threatening email for meeting with Taiwanese officials.
“I certainly think that bullies respond to strength. And my response to them was you cannot tell me who I’m going to meet with or where I’m going to meet with them,” she said.
Reuters contributed to this article.