China’s government on Monday slammed star soccer forward Mesut Ozil of the English Premier League’s Arsenal club for his “blinded and misled” comments concerning reports of rights violations against ethnic Uyghurs in its northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The German-born ethnic Turkish Muslim over the weekend called Uyghurs “warriors who resist persecution” in the region, where authorities are believed to have held 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of 1,300-1,400 internment camps since April 2017.
On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that Ozil, who has also chastised Muslims for not speaking out against China, had been led astray by “fake news” about what is happening in the XUAR and should come see the situation for himself.
“He was blinded and misled by some false reports and untrue words,” Geng told a regular press briefing in Beijing.
“We welcome Mr. Ozil to visit Xinjiang to look around. As long as he has a conscience, can distinguish right from wrong and uphold objective and impartial principles, he will see a different Xinjiang.”
While Beijing once denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Arsenal has tried to distance itself from Ozil’s comments, calling them an expression of his “personal opinion” and citing its policy of refraining from getting involved in politics, but Chinese state television canceled the broadcast of the club’s game against Manchester City on Sunday.
The Premier League sold rights to broadcasts of its games in China for U.S. $700 million over three years until 2022 and it is unclear what kind of backlash the league might face.
The National Basketball Association has said its China-related revenue was severely negatively impacted after an official with the Houston Rockets in October expressed support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Amid the flap, Chinese broadcasters stopped showing NBA games and local partners cut ties with the league.
According to Reuters news agency, while China’s official Global Times tabloid said Monday that Ozil’s online fan club had been “suspended,” without providing further details, Arsenal-branded merchandise remained on sale at retailers around the country, as well as on major Chinese e-commerce platforms Alibaba and JD.com, which had taken down Houston Rockets merchandise following the comments in October.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.