Mesut Ozil condemned China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in China in an Instagram post
Topline: English Premier League team Arsenal is facing a backlash in China, one of the league’s biggest markets, after midfielder Mesut Ozil condemned the country’s treatment of Uighur Muslims which reportedly prompted local soccer fans to burn their team shirts in protest.
- Ozil, posted a text post to his Instagram account of 21 million followers on Friday. In it, he criticized China’s detention of Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, in the tightly-policed Xinjiang region. He said: “Qurans are burned, mosques were closed down, Islamic theological schools, madrasas were banned, religious scholars were killed one by one. Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet.”
- The words were posted against a background of the East Turkestan Republic flag, which is the banner of Uighurs campaigning for independence for the Xinjiang region from China.
- China accused Ozil of being deceived by “fake news” on Monday and called for him to visit Xinjiang. Meanwhile state broadcaster CCTV reportedly cancelled its broadcast of the Arsenal vs Manchester City game on Sunday. Online broadcaster PPTV also removed the game from its schedule, Chinese state newspaper Global Times reported.
- Arsenal, which has 5 million followers on Chinese social media platform Weibo, distanced itself from Ozil’s comments, saying the club has “always adhered to the principle of not involving politics.”
- Ozil is one of the most followed players of an England club by Chinese fans, according to a 2019 Red Card report, compiled by Chinese digital marketing agency Mailman.
- The Turkish-German 31-year-old earned $30.2 million last year and ranks 57th on Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid athletes. Before that he played for Germany’s national team, but quit in 2018, citing racism in the country.
- The backlash reawakened a controversy about China’s communist government using control to its lucrative domestic market as a way to pressure international companies and brands into following its line on political issues.
Crucial quote: “Regarding the remarks released by Mesut Ozil on social media yesterday evening on Beijing time, Arsenal Football Club must make a clear statement here: the content it published is all Ozil personal opinion,” Arsenal wrote on Weibo on Saturday.
Key background: China has faced international condemnation over its repressive governance of Xinjiang, which has seen up to a million Uighurs, and other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities, detained in prison camps. The issue has exploded on social media after TikTok, owned by Chinese tech and entertainment giant ByteDance, was criticised for the way it handled a video by a New Jersey teen, who disguised an awareness-raising video about China’s human right record as a makeup tutorial.
In 2016, the Premier League sold struck a $700 million, three-year deal with PPTV for the Chinese platform to stream league games, and China is one of the English league’s biggest foreign markets. The league has also made strides in recent years to strengthen its presence in China, being the first European league to launch an official app there.
Why it matters: Ozil has dragged sport, Europe, and majority Muslim nations into one of the most political sensitive issues involving China’s increasingly assertive communist government. Earlier this year the NBA became embroiled in an international PR crisis after Houston Rockets General manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at the time the league suffered “dramatic losses” in China while the league was pilloried in the United States, and abroad, for its initial refusal to back Morey’s right to speak his mind and attempts to appease China’s demand for censorship.
Ozil’s role as one of the world’s most famous Muslim sportsmen, and as a star of the English Premier League puts his club, league, and sport at loggerheads with a Chinese government that is seeking to extend its own internal censorship regime globally.