Former NBA player Dwight Howard apologized to China on Friday after he referred to Taiwan as a country in a promotional video.
Howard, who is playing for the Taoyuan Leopards in the Taiwanese Basketball Association, appeared in a promotional campaign video with Taiwan Vice President William Lai that was posted to Twitter on Thursday.
“Hello everyone, I’m Dwight Howard and since I came to Taiwan, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of this country,” Howard said in the clip. “This place makes me feel so much love and I experience so much hospitality with [a] friendly and great living environment with such a great diverse culture.”
The video invites tourists to spend a night at the Presidential Office Building in Taipei. Lai, a contender in Taiwan’s presidential election next year, refers to Taiwan as a “free country” at one point in the video.
Howard’s comments quickly drew criticism on Chinese social media, where many users accused him of supporting Taiwan’s independence. On Weibo, the hashtag #HowardTaiwanindependence was viewed nearly 400 million times on Friday.
In response to the backlash, Howard, who is a popular fan favorite in Taiwan, distanced himself from the topic and immediately issued an apology.
“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,” Howard told Taiwanese reporters.
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 … I have the utmost respect for Chinese people and utmost respect for Taiwanese people, so it was never my intent to disrespect nobody.
While Taiwan is a self-ruled democracy, the Chinese government considers it to be a breakaway province and has threatened to use force to unite it with mainland China.
Most of the world’s countries do not officially recognize the island, otherwise known as the Republic of China, as a country.
The incident comes at a time of heightened tensions
between China and Taiwan. In recent months, China has increased its military activity near Taiwan, which the U.S. has pledged to support in the event of a Chinese attack.