Mesut Ozil vs China: A very modern football rivalry

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What happens when a German-Turkish player for one of the most famous English clubs sends a devastatingly critical message to the Chinese government?

Last week, the biggest worry for the Arsenal boardroom was finding a permanent manager to replace the sacked Unai Emery. That was until Mesut Ozil addressed the political situation in Xinjiang, China, on his social media platforms.

The German-Turkish star tweeted about China’s most western province of Xinjiang, or as Ozil called it, East Turkestan. In a long message to his 24 million followers, the Arsenal star called on Uyghur “warriors to resist persecution.”

In addition to his calls for resistance, he also highlighted reports of detention camps and restrictions on Islam in the region as well as the world media’s failure to shine a light on the situation.

“Qur’an are burned, mosques are closed, madrasas are banned, and religious scholars are killed one by one,” he wrote. “The brothers are forced into camps. Chinese men are settled in their families instead of them. The sisters are forced to marry Chinese men.”

Arsenal, fearing large-scale repercussions from the Chinese government, immediately sent out a response on Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo to distance the organisation from their highest-paid player.

In the post, the club made it clear that Ozil’s “personal opinion” was not the view of the club and that “Arsenal as a football club has always adhered to the principle of not involving [itself in] politics.”

The post was sent and the club braced itself.

Months earlier the Houston Rockets and the NBA had been left severely damaged and commercially wounded in China after Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government swiftly wiped the NBA from TV and pressured many significant Chinese commercial partners to cut ties with the league. For Arsenal, fears that the club’s growth and major moneymaking interests in China could take a hit in the same way as the NBA and the Rockets were at the forefront of their minds.

Arsenal, though, can consider themselves very lucky that the response of the Chinese state has not been on the scale of the NBA sanctions.

Two days after the Ozil tweet, Arsenal’s game against Manchester City was pulled from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV and online sports streaming platform PPTV. Following on from the decision to pull the game from broadcast, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, released a statement.

“I don’t know if Mr Ozil has been to Xinjiang personally. But he seems to have been deceived by fake news, and his judgment has been influenced by untrue words,” Geng said.

“Ozil does not know that the Chinese government protects the freedom of religious belief of all Chinese citizens, including Uyghurs, in accordance with the law, nor does he know China’s counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang are supported by local people of all ethnic groups, and no terrorist incidents have occurred in Xinjiang for three consecutive years, he continued.

“We welcome Mr Ozil to come to Xinjiang, and walk around to have a look. So long as he has a conscience, can tell right from wrong and maintain an objective and impartial attitude, he will see a ‘different’ Xinjiang.”

The Chinese government is not keen on sticking the boot into the Premier League and Arsenal in the same way it had the NBA. Many in the Foreign Ministry had felt that the attacks on the NBA had put further spotlight on Hong Kong and damaged the reputation of China internationally.

The signals sent down to the line to state media outlets made it clear that the stories about Xinjiang should be responded to, but then swept under the rug because the current controversy over Uyghur Muslims is potentially far more sensitive internationally for the Chinese state.

While the government’s response has been quite mild, the response by some of the Chinese fans was not. A Mesut Ozil fan, on the World Cup winner’s online fan club, posted that they were closing down all their fan sites for the “national interest,” while a stream of online posts levelled abuse and criticism at the player.

“He is a public figure and a sportsman. He should be careful what he writes and only talk about football,” wrote one user named as Bowen. Another proudly announced: “I can’t support Arsenal while Ozil plays. He needs to go to a club with no morals like Manchester. I think I will only watch Italian football for a while.”

While many of the online responses failed to address the issues raised by Ozil, a significant number did focus on his decision to call Xinjiang, East Turkestan. The name East Turkestan is the name of the region used by many pro-independence groups – as well as terrorist organisations – and the use of the name is sensitive to many people in China.

Pro-independence movements are shut down and discredited immediately by the Chinese state, as well as anything that veers towards pro-independence, whether for Tibet, Hong Kong, or even the de facto independent Taiwan, which China still claims. The Chinese government and significant numbers of Chinese people take it as a personal affront.

For the time being it is unclear what long term effects this will have on the Arsenal brand in China, but one thing for certain is that the Ozil brand is tarnished forever in the country. It’s unlikely that Chinese fans will ever see Ozil on a pre-season tour to the country, nor see him picking up one final mega pay check in the Chinese Super League before retirement. In fact, Ozil has even been removed from Chinese versions of PES and FIFA on Chinese gaming platforms.

Yet, it’s doubtful as to whether Ozil really cares about his presence in China. At a time when footballers are finding themselves more politically vocal and independent than ever before, the case of Ozil and the Chinese government will not be the last of its kind.

Clubs and leagues, that up to now have remained largely apolitical, will have to start weighing up the potential economic risks of cutting off the Chinese market with the moral risks of denying players, fans and coaches their freedom of speech.

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