State-controlled China Central Television (CCTV) has halted broadcasting English soccer matches on its main sports channel. The move appears to be a result of growing political tensions between China and the U.K.
CCTV canceled its coverage of the game between Liverpool and Chelsea on Wednesday night, according to sources quoted by Bloomberg. It will not show the remaining matches in the current, coronavirus-delayed English Premier League season. The Sportsbusiness website reports that the match was switched from the mainstream CCTV5 channel to second tier channel CCTV5 Plus.
EPL rights in China are licensed to the Suning-owned streamer PPTV until the end of the 2021-2022 season. PP Sports sub-licenses to other platforms.
It was unclear whether English soccer will also now disappear from Tencent Sports, part of the Tencent social media, entertainment and games behemoth, which operates some streaming rights in China. Contacted by Variety, a Tencent spokesman said the company would not comment unless a complaint about an abnormality had occurred.
Difficulties between the U.K. and China have been growing in recent weeks. Britain is preventing Chinese tech firm Huawei from supplying telecoms equipment for U.K. networks — going back on its previous decision this spring to allow limited involvement, and now following the lead of the U.S.
Further adding to problems have been western democratic countries’ reactions to the imposition of a new National Security Law by Beijing in Hong Kong, a former British colony, from July 1. The U.K. says the new law curtails the autonomy that Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy until 2047, as agreed under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. China says the opposite. It argues that the new law brings law and order to the city following a year of political turmoil.
In addition to growing verbal rebukes of China, the U.K. this week ended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, arguing that the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese legal systems are no longer separate. On Wednesday, the U.K. upped its response by formally going ahead with the offer of visas, and potentially British citizenship, to some 3 million Hong Kong-born people, who are currently eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport.
In a further sign of the growing gap between China and the West, the U.S. on Wednesday ordered the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, Texas. The office was described as a hub for spying and given 72 hours to be closed. Retaliation from China is expected, and discussion has focused on the possible closure of a U.S. consulate, either in Wuhan, or in Hong Kong.
Sports and culture are increasingly being drawn into what was already an economic, technological and political battle between China and the West. Last year, CCTV and Chinese streaming platforms dropped U.S. basketball coverage following remarks on Twitter by an official that offered support to Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Sportsbusiness says that CCTV has not resumed its coverage of the NBA, though Tencent has.
In December last year, CCTV canceled its coverage of a soccer match involving English teams Arsenal and Manchester City, after the Arsenal player Mezut Ozil criticized China’s treatment of its ethnically Uighur, Muslim population in Xinjiang Province. Western governments and human rights organizations have accused China of keeping millions of Uighurs in detention. China denies the accusation and says they are training establishments.
English soccer is among the most watched sports in the world and has a large following in China. Until a few years ago, soccer had been encouraged at the very highest levels of the Chinese government.
That led companies including property-cum-entertainment group Dalian Wanda to enter into long-term advertising and sponsorship deals with FIFA for the World Cup, with the possible aim of hosting the tournament in China by 2030. Numerous other Chinese companies have invested large sums to buy stakes in European soccer clubs.
Leading entertainment conglomerate China Media Capital and state-backed conglomerate CITIC jointly paid $400 million for a minority stake in Manchester City in 2015. Diversified investment and entertainment group Fosun acquired English team Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2016. Other clubs in the top two English divisions that count large Chinese investment include Southampton, Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Bromwich Albion, which on Wednesday secured promotion from the Championship to the Premier League.