Jun 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Inside the GOP lunch with NBA free agent Enes Kanter Freedom

Former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom and Republican Study Committee chairman, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). Photo courtesy of the RSC.

Former NBA player Enes Kanter Freedom and Republican Study Committee chairman, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). Photo courtesy of the RSC.

Enes Kanter Freedom told conservative House members at a lunch Wednesday at the Capitol that "Wall Street, think tanks, academia, Hollywood, the sports ... all of them is pretty much run by the Chinese government in some form."

  • "The more pressure you put on them, the more we hold them accountable," said the free agent and former center for the Boston Celtics.

Driving the news: The Muslim athlete, an outspoken critic of China's abuse of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang — and of the NBA's relations with China — flew in from Canada to attend the Republican Study Committee lunch at the behest of the group's chair, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.)

  • An Axios reporter was exclusively invited to observe the gathering.

Why it matters: Banks hopes Kanter Freedom's celebrity will boost support for legislation for new sanctions against U.S. entities doing business with companies that indirectly use Uyghurs for forced labor.

  • American companies already are prohibited from working with companies that use Uyghur labor, while Banks' bill addresses a loophole.
  • The alliance also may boost Banks' and the RSC's hardline reputation on China policy. Banks has his eye on a future role in leadership and sees this issue as being a key driver for the GOP in the midterm elections.

Reality check: Both President Biden and former President Trump labeled China's campaign of mass internment, forced labor and forced sterilization of Uyghurs as genocide.

What they're saying: Banks told Kanter Freedom he was "the inspiration" for his bill and urged RSC members to sign on as cosponsors.

  • One RSC member, looking ahead to November elections in which Republicans are widely expected to retake the House majority, asked Kanter Freedom, "What else can we do?"
  • Banks told Axios that taking a more critical approach to China is a central bridge between the RSC and a "more populist" Trump agenda. "This is what makes the conservative movement and the Republican Party different today than what it was five years ago," he said.
  • "As we set the stage and plant the flag for where Republicans go, we get the majority back, countering Communist China is one of our very top priorities."

How we got here: Kanter Freedom, 30, born in Switzerland to Turkish parents and raised in Turkey, has sharply criticized the NBA, Nike and other U.S. companies for continuing activities in China. He had "Freedom" legally added to his surname.

  • He was traded by the Boston Celtics and cut by the Houston Rockets earlier this year.
  • During Wednesday's lunch, as GOP members munched on Chick-fil-A and Dunkin' Donuts coffee, Kanter Freedom detailed how he became involved as an activist — which he said he believes ultimately cost him his contract with the NBA.
  • He said his mangers warned him: "You have shoe deals. You have endorsement deals. If you want to get another contract, we cannot attack Nike. We cannot talk about China. Then you also will be kicked out of the league."
  • "They said enjoy this year, enjoy your last year."

What's next: Kanter Freedom told Axios he will return to the Capitol on June 23 to kick off his new Freedom Foundation.

Go deeper: Soccer stars speak out on China's Uyghurs — and pay a price

Go deeper