Mesut Özil China row: western brands be warned, self-censorship won’t protect you

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Originally published by The Guardian in December 18, 2019 

Arsenal star Mesut Özil tends to cause controversy on and off the pitch. That is why he should be applauded for speaking out about the plight of Uighurs in China and helping to raise awareness of one of the worst human rights atrocities of the modern era.

Özil posted to his millions of followers on social media on Friday about the persecution of Uighurs, condemning silence from Muslims on the issue. Özil is a Muslim who won the World Cup with the German national team before quitting international football amid claims of “racism and disrespect” over his Turkish heritage.

He is right to speak out. The Chinese government is committing ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang and the world should not stay silent. United Nations experts have described the region as a “no-rights zone” where Uighurs are “treated as enemies of the state based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity”. Recently, leaked government documents added to the body of evidence about the vast system of internment camps, which are holding more than a million Uighurs and Turkic Muslims. It is the largest detention of an ethno-religious minority since the second world war.

Özil’s post prompted anger from Chinese state-controlled media and social media platforms. The Chinese Football Association issued a statement that the Arsenal star “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” but censored the content of the post, so readers didn’t know why their feelings had been hurt. China’s foreign ministry even stepped in and said the footballer had been “blindfolded by fake news”.

There is nothing fake about the horrific human rights abuses the government of China is perpetrating against Uighurs in an attempt to erase their cultural and religious identity. Muslim women have been forcibly sterilised in internment camps and Uighur children separated from their parents and sent to state-run orphanages. The Chinese government has demolished mosquescemeteries, historical sites, and neighbourhoods. The Uighur language has been banned in schools.

Arsenal’s response has been a cynical attempt to placate government-manufactured outrage in the pursuit of profits over principles. Executives should remember that critical Chinese voices face detention and censorship. Following in the footsteps of many brands that adopted the Chinese Communist party (CCP) political stance, the club released a Chinese-language statement that “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” The statement still does not appear on its English-language social media accounts or website.

As many NBA fans found out in October, when the Houston Rockets manager sparked a major crisis for briefly supporting the Hong Kong protestors, sports clubs are not prepared to stand up to the Chinese government for fear that it will shut down a significant source of revenue

Though global football institutions stayed silent when Uighur footballer Erfan Hezim was sent to an internment camp, they should not look away now that one of the sport’s most prominent players has forced the issue. China will host the 2021 Club World Cup and Xi Jinping has his eye on hosting the World Cup. Human rights abuses should not be swept under the rug.

No matter how much brands grovel to the Chinese government, they will always be vulnerable to nationalist sentiment inflamed by the Communist party that has tied its legitimacy on having led the country out of its “century of national humiliation”. Self-censorship is not a guarantee of protection for western brands and only exposes their hypocrisy to fans back home in democracies. Instead of falsely claiming they do not involve themselves in politics, Arsenal should use this opportunity to stand up for human rights.

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