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Soccer star Mesut Özil under fire in China for criticizing Muslim detention camps

Özil's social media posts were met by criticism online in China and an apparent decision from Chinese TV not to broadcast Sunday's marquee game involving Arsenal.
German midfielder Mesut Ozil of the London soccer club Arsenal.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP - Getty Images

LONDON — China's approach to human rights and its relationship with global sports were once again in the spotlight this weekend after a soccer star criticized the country's treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority.

Mesut Özil, a prominent player for English soccer club Arsenal, denounced China's policies toward its Muslim residents in a post on Twitter and Instagram on Friday. He was met by criticism online in China and a decision from Chinese TV not to broadcast Sunday's marquee game involving the club.

The controversy comes months after the NBA faced a sustained backlash after Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressed apparent support for protests in Hong Kong.

The high-profile incident developed into a crisis for the league.

Now soccer may have to confront the same questions. An estimated 1 million people have been detained in China's network of Muslim internment centers across the western province of Xinjiang.

In his social media posts, Özil, who is Muslim, called Uighurs "warriors who resist persecution" and criticized China's crackdown and the silence of Muslims in response.

He told his more than 20 million followers, in a post translated from Turkish: "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."

Arsenal, which has a large following in China and has previously toured the country, sought to distance itself from the comments.

In a statement posted to its official account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, Arsenal insisted that the player was not speaking for the club and that it remained apolitical.

"The content he expressed is entirely Özil's personal opinion," the statement said.

But on Sunday, the state-run newspaper Global Times said state-run CCTV would no longer be broadcasting Sunday's English Premier League clash between Arsenal and Manchester City.

It said the decision was made after Özil's "false comments on Xinjiang disappointed Chinese fans and football governing authorities."

Arsenal's post on Weibo was met with angry replies, with one showing a shredded Özil soccer jersey next to a pair of scissors and others demanding that he be expelled from the club.

The response from China echoed that which met the Rockets and the NBA in October.

The broadcasts of preseason NBA games were canceled, and events in the country were met with protests, throwing a wrench into the league's push to cultivate loyal spectators and court powerful investors in the country.

Arsenal, and the Premier League more broadly, has similarly tried to expand its Chinese following. The club opened its first Arsenal-themed sports bar and restaurant in Shanghai last year.

But human rights issues have now again reared their head.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said in a regular briefing Monday, as carried by state-run Peoples Daily, flagship newspaper of the Communist Party: "Xinjiang is an inalienable part of China. In the history of China, Xinjiang is never called East Turkestan, not to mention the 'the state of East Turkestan.' I don’t know if Mr. Ozil have ever been to Xinjiang, but he seems being blinded and affected by some fake news.

"He does not know that the Chinese government by law protects citizens’, including Uyghurs’, religious freedom, nor the government’s anti-terrorism and stabilizing measures in Xinjiang gains supports from people of all ethnic groups. Ozil doesn’t know there were no terrorism or violent incident in the last three consecutive years."

After long denying that Uighur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz ethnic minorities were being detained on accusations of terrorism or extremist leanings, Chinese authorities began to acknowledge the existence of the camps in late 2018.

However, officials said the centers were vocational training centers for the unemployed and boarding schools.

Documents from state authorities leaked earlier this year revealed that the camps were designed for ideological transformation, political brainwashing and culture erasing.

The New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch said in a 2018 report that China was inflicting "rampant abuses," including torture and unfair trials, on the Muslim population.

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Sports stars aren't the only social media users trying to spread awareness.

On TikTok, teens and other young people around the world have been creating videos to draw attention to China's the treatment of Uighurs.

Users of the social media platform, which is owned by Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., have also alleged that they have been censored because of their criticism.