Former NBA star Dwight Howard sparks controversy in China after saying that Taiwan is a country

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The eight-time NBA All-Star Dwight Howard has been playing in Taiwan for some months now, already becoming a sensation for the Taoyuan Leopards and breaking some records ever since his arrival in Asia. The 37-year-old has now been caught in the eye of the storm as he stirred heavy controversy after referring to Taiwan as a “country” during an interview for a promotional campaign for the island’s Vice President.

“Since I came to Taiwan, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of this country. This place makes me feel so much love,” Howard said in a video which was posted online this Thursday.

Taiwan’s situation has always been a complicated one, as they are a self-ruled democracy but there are not officially recognized as an independent country by most governments in the world, despite the fact that they have their own constitution, elected president, currency and even military.

The thing is, China’s Communist Party has ruled the mainland for decades, and considers the island to be part of their territory, even though they’ve never controlled it. Their government has refused to unify Taiwan with China by force.

This delicate situation is fundamental for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who promotes a nationalistic agenda he calls “national rejuvenation”, which has created great tension between both territories over the years.

So, Howard didn’t really know what he was getting into when he agreed to take part in the video next to William Lai, Taiwan’s Vice President, who is running for president next year.

Lai told the basketball star that international travelers are even welcome to enjoy an overnight stay with breakfast at the Presidencial Office Building, and Howard reacted in awe. “That is crazy! I don’t even know that’s legal in my country or not,” he said.

Lai replied: “That’s why Taiwan is a free country.” As the former NBA star agreed. “OK! I like it,” the player affirmed.

Howard has already proceded to apologize as the video created furor in China

Very quickly, the video triggered uproar in China after it was reposted on Chinese social media with a hashtag called “Howard Taiwan independence”. This became the top trending topic this Friday morning, already accumulating more than 400 million views by the afternoon.

“If I offended anyone in China I apologize. It was not my intention to harm anyone with what I said in the commercial,” he asked for pardon. “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.”

Taiwan’s Presidential Spokesperson Kolas Yotaka was interviewed by CNN, and said it was “sad” to witness Chinese internet users “have their hearts broken.”

“We do not intend to break their hearts,” she assured. “We welcome them to stay in Taiwan for a few nights. If you know more about Taiwan, you will know why politicians, athletes, tourists, and entrepreneurs from all over the world like to come to our country.”