THE NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION, the dominant professional basketball league in the United States, got into hot water politically and commercially in China earlier this year when an official of one of its teams tweeted his support of the protests in Hong Kong.
Football may not carry the same geopolitical sensitivities in this era of Beijing-Washington confrontation as US pro sports. Still, reaction to critical comments over China’s treatment of its Uighurs by Mesut Özil a German of Turkish descent who plays for Arsenal in the English Premier League and who is Muslim, has been no less quick or punitive.
Planned live coverage of Arsenal’s match against the defending league champions Manchester City last weekend was dropped by the state broadcaster, despite the club quickly distancing itself from its player’s comments, saying it was an apolitical organisation.
State and Party media weighed into Özil with both feet. NetEase, the online technology company founded by billionaire Ding Lei, patriotically removed the player from three of its video games, including the highly popular Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 Mobile.
Özil did get support, however, from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted that:
China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Özil and Arsenal’s game all season long, but the truth will prevail. The CCP can’t hide its gross human rights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.
Less noticed was that the German club FC Cologne has finally pulled out of a deal to run a training academy in China. Stefan Müller-Römer, a lawyer who is a member of the football club’s council, told his local newspaper that ‘as a non-profit organisation that is socially active, [FC Cologne] cannot support such a brutal and totalitarian dictatorship’.
No such qualms at FIFA, world football’s governing body, which recently voted to stage its inaugural world club championship in China in 2021. Its newly-appointed head of global football development, Arsene Wenger, who when he was the manager of Arsenal signed Ozil for the club, tiptoed along a fine line, saying:
Mesut Özil has freedom of speech like everyone else, and he uses his notoriety to express his opinions, which are not necessarily shared by everybody. What’s important is that Ozil has an individual responsibility…When you make a comment about your individual opinion, you accept the consequences of it.
At least, Özil retains his freedom of speech, even in the politically sanitised world of professional sport. The charters of at least three universities in China, including the relatively liberal Fudan University in Shanghai, have been rewritten to remove or downplay references to academic independence and freedom of thought, with ‘implementing the Party’s direction, principles and policy’ and similar patriotic prescriptions superseding them.
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