State broadcaster China Central Television on Sunday dropped its planned live coverage of a soccer match between English teams Arsenal and Manchester City due to the political comments made by one of Arsenal’s players.
Mesut Ozil, a German midfield player of Turkish origin, used social media to criticize China’s practices in Xinjiang province, which has a majority Muslim population of Uighur-Turkic origin. International human rights groups and investigative Western media have strongly criticized China for use of detention camps to hold over one million Uighurs. China has denied that these are prison camps, describing them instead as vocational training establishments and part of its efforts to fight separatism and terrorism.
Using Instagram and Twitter, Ozil called the detained Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution.” He also criticized the Chinese government, and the governments of Muslim nations who have done little to address the issue.
Arsenal, a Premier League club based in North London, quickly attempted to distance itself from the often controversial player’s comments, and to minimize damage to its reputation in China. It used Chinese social media platform Weibo, on which it has 5 million followers, to say: “The content published is all Ozil’s personal opinion. Arsenal, as a football club, has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
That tactic was quickly shown to have failed. The Chinese state-owned tabloid newspaper The Global Times said that Ozil’s comments were “false,” “unacceptable” and had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”.
On Sunday, CCTV dropped its coverage of the match, replacing it instead with a pre-recorded game between English teams Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The incident is reminiscent of the major spat in October between China and the U.S. National Basketball Association. It also means that two of the world’s most watched sports — soccer and basketball — have run foul of Chinese authorities.
Daryl Morey, an executive at the Houston Rockets basketball team, used social media to voice support for the pro-democracy protesters that are currently stoking Chinese government fury in Hong Kong. Although he quickly deleted the post, China used a mixture of media and corporate levers to retaliate against the league.
The Chinese government has been deeply embarrassed by exposure of its activities in Xinjiang, which many commentators liken to the security measures and ethnic dilution policies previously exercised in Tibet. In the past few weeks several of China’s overseas ambassadors have mounted vigorous defence of the system of camps while also asserting that other countries should not interfere in its domestic affairs.
Last week, the government reported that the people attending the Xinjiang camps had all “graduated” but it failed to say whether they were free to leave.
In the past few days, the Associated Press news agency has reported that “the Xinjiang regional government is deleting data, destroying documents (and) tightening controls on information,” following the leak of large quantities of documents, including speeches by Chinese President Xi Jinping, that appeared to show the political reasons for the building of the camps and describe the strict lines on which they should be run. These were published by the New York Times and other media working with The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.