China cancels screening of Arsenal match after star player Mesut Ozil condemns treatment of Uighurs

James Rothwell
Ethnic Uighur boys hold placards with the pictures of English soccer club Arsenal's midfielder Mesut Ozil during a protest against China in Istanbul, Turkey December 14, 2019. The placard reads:

China has cancelled a screening of an Arsenal football match after the team’s star midfielder criticised the treatment of Uighur Muslims, amid reports Beijing is increasing secrecy around its controversial internment camps. 

Mesut Ozil had posted messages on Twitter and Instagram which described Uighurs as “warriors who resist persecution” and urged Muslims not to “stay quiet” about China’s crackdown on the minority group.

The football club sought to distance itself from those remarks, stressing that they were “entirely Ozil’s opinion” in a statement on Weibo, a Chinese website similar to Twitter.

But according to Bloomberg, China has responded by cancelling the screening of Arsenal’s match against Manchester City on CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster.

Instead, CCTV broadcast a prerecorded game between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Mesut Ozil called on Muslims not to "stay quiet" about the Uighur issue in posts on socal media Credit: Stuart McFarlane

It comes amid reports that China’s regional government in Xinjiang is destroying its computers after a high-profile leak to the New York Times exposing the indoctrination and harsh treatment of Uighurs in Chinese internment camps.

A trove of Chinese government papers published by the New York Times last month appeared to confirm fears that the Chinese Community Party was brainwashing Uighurs and committing severe human rights abuses.

According to one document, Xi Jingping, the Chinese president, told officials to “show no mercy” to UIghurs.

The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that around 1-2 million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions in Xinjiang as part of what Beijing calls an anti-terrorism campaign.

China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uighurs and has dismissed the New York Times report as a “media conspiracy to slander China’s terrorist effort.”

The row with Arsenal began after Ozil, a practising Muslim, wrote in one social media post:  “(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.”

Responses on Weibo to Arsenal’s statement distancing the club from those remarks were hostile. One of them showed a shredded Ozil football strip next to a pair of scissors and others demanded he be expelled from the club.

A search on Weibo for the hashtag translatable as "Ozil issues inappropriate statement", which had been one of the top trending topics on the platform, returned no results over the weekend.

Exterior view of a "vocational skills education centre" for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province Credit: Reuters 

Weibo frequently censors discussion of sensitive topics, particularly amid a push by Beijing to clean up its internet.

The Chinese Football Association told government-backed news outlet The Paper on Saturday it was "outraged and disappointed" by Ozil's remarks, describing them as "inappropriate".

"Ozil's comments are undoubtedly hurtful to the Chinese fans who closely follow him, and at the same time his comments also hurt the feelings of Chinese people. This is something we cannot accept," the news outlet quoted an unnamed official from the association as saying.

The Global Times newspaper also reported on its official Twitter account on Sunday that CCTV had removed Arsenal's Sunday match against Manchester City from its broadcast schedule after Ozil's comments "disappointed fans and football governing authorities".