Sunday’s match between Manchester City and Arsenal, which has a large following and extensive commercial interests in China, was preempted after social media posts by Özil, a German Muslim who is of Turkish heritage. In the posts, Özil condemned China’s detention of Uighurs, a largely Muslim Turkic minority, in Xinjiang.
Instead of the Arsenal match, China Central Television carried a prerecorded match between Tottenham and Wolverhampton.
“[In China] 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,” Özil wrote Friday on social media, using an image of the flag of the former East Turkestan republic that is now under the control of Xinjiang.
On Monday, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said Özil, who has more than 4 million followers on China’s Twitter-style microblogging site Weibo, had been “blinded by fake news and influenced by untruthful remarks.”
“We welcome Mr. Özil to visit Xinjiang and see for himself,” Geng Shuang said at a regular briefing in Beijing. “As long as he has common sense, can make a clear distinction between right and wrong, and upholds the principles of objectivity and fairness, he will see a different Xinjiang.
“He might not know that the Chinese government protects the religious freedom of all Chinese citizens, including Uighurs, according to law … and our anti-terrorism campaign there has won the sincere support of locals. Xinjiang enjoys political stability, economic development, national unity, social harmony, and … people there live and work in peace and contentment.”
Human rights advocates and governments, including that of the United States, have called on China to allow investigations of Uighur internment camps. Uighur activists and their supporters last month pointed to leaked Chinese documents, reported on by the New York Times, as evidence of repression.
“The Chinese government’s cruel, bigoted treatment of Muslims and ethnic minorities is a horrifying human rights violation,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), a Democratic presidential candidate, wrote on Twitter. “We must stand up to hatred and extremism at home — and around the world.”
Arsenal had hoped to distance itself from Özil’s pro-Uighur posts Saturday, writing in a statement on Weibo: “What Özil posted on social media was entirely his personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of noninvolvement in politics.”
With good reason. Like the NBA, which found itself in a similar situation when Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the Premier League has a lucrative financial arrangement with China, a $700 million, three-year deal for broadcast rights that runs through 2022.
Arsenal is one of several teams owned by Stan Kroenke, whose company also owns the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids and other teams. Arsenal toured China in 2017 for a preseason promotion and also owns a chain of team-themed restaurants in the country. Although Arsenal does not have as big of a presence as Real Madrid or Manchester United in the world’s most populous country, it does fear putting off big-spending sponsors and a Chinese fan base.
CCTV aired a documentary earlier this month that defended Beijing’s campaign of “fighting terrorism in Xinjiang” on its English news channel CGTN. The state-run tabloid Global Times claimed that the decision to cancel the CCTV broadcast was made after Özil’s “false comments on Xinjiang disappointed Chinese fans and football governing authorities.” The streaming service PPTV.com also canceled a feed of Arsenal’s 3-0 loss.
Over the weekend, an editorial in the Chinese sports weekly Titan Sports slammed Özil for “paying too much attention to politics and too little to soccer.” Weibo was abuzz with fury over Özil, with the hashtag #OzilMadeWrongfulComments making it into the top trending topics over the weekend. TV soccer commentator Zhan Jun posted on Weibo on Saturday, saying Özil’s “vicious” statements should result in “an end to his Premier League career.”
The Chinese Football Association also expressed disappointment over Özil’s comments. "'East Turkistan’ is not a national or religious issue, but separatism, terrorism and extremism, which are despised by peace-loving people all over the world,” a league official told the Global Times. “Özil’s comments not only hurt many Chinese fans … but also hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.”
One Weibo user posted video of Özil’s Arsenal shirts being burned in protest. Others criticized Özil, said his comments were worse than Morey’s and said the team should not even consider another visit to China until it settles the matter.
“Arsenal has made a mistake of not having got rid of [Özil] earlier,” Titan Sports chief editor Luo Ming, who has more than 600,000 followers on Weibo, posted Monday. “What happened recently will certainly not help him stay longer.”
Lyric Li contributed to this report from China.
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