Last week on Instagram, Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil posted a poem in Turkish criticizing the treatment that Muslim Uyghurs have been facing in Xinjiang with the East Turkestan flag—the current symbol of the Xinjiang independence movement—as the background. At The Guardian, Nick Ames reports on Mesut Özil’s post, and notes that the football club, which is very popular among Chinese football fans, quickly attempted to distance itself from the sentiment that it contained:
The club sought to limit any damage caused to its business in China, where it has numerous commercial interests including a chain of restaurants, by releasing a statement on Weibo – a leading Chinese social media site – as well as other platforms stressing it is apolitical and does not associate itself with Özil’s views.
“Regarding the comments made by Mesut Özil on social media, Arsenal must make a clear statement,” it read. “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.”
[…] His Instagram message read: “East Turkistan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion. They burn their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men. The women are forced to marry Chinese men.
“But Muslims are silent. They won’t make a noise. They have abandoned them. Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?” [Source]
The Xinjiang region has been the site of a mass detention program where an estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs are being or have been held in a series of internment camps. While authorities claim that these camps are simply “vocational training” facilities, there has been evidence of forced labor, political indoctrination, abuse, and deaths inside the camps. Following an outpouring of media reports and firsthand accounts of the conditions in the camps, Beijing last week declared that most inmates had “graduated.” Researcher Adrian Zenz pointed out that the assertion came with no declaration of their release, and interpreted it as a shift from forced indoctrination to forced labor in the remaining detention facilities.
As diplomatic pressure on Beijing has slowly mounted regarding the situation in Xinjiang over the last year, few Muslim-majority countries have publicly expressed concern. When Beijing replied to a joint statement from 22 nations (none of them home to a Muslim majority) condemning the mass detentions with a letter lauding China’s “contribution to the international human rights cause,” several Muslim-majority nations signed.
Despite Arsenal’s attempts to put distance between themselves and their player’s post, the incident caused an upsurge in angry online opinion in China. In a follow-up report at The Guardian, Lily Kuo reports on the reaction from China’s foreign ministry and patriotic Chinese football fans, some of whom have taken to social media to post their intent to destroy Özil jerseys:
“Do you know how Arsenal fans in China have spent the last two days?” one former fan posted on his Instagram profile. “They are struggling to understand how the club and idol they once loved has turned out to be a rumourmonger. Of course, if you intend to attack China, you are as insignificant in our hearts as dirty ants.”
Another said: “As a Chinese football fan, I’m very disappointed. Why can’t you just focus on playing football? As a public figure, you should know what you can say, what you can do and be aware of the consequences.”
On Weibo, a fan posted a video of football shirts bearing Özil’s previous numbers lit on fire. Others said they too planned to burn their shirts, while some said they planned to trash theirs. Some posted photos of Arsenal shirts or Özil’s jersey and wrote: “How disappointing.”
[…] The footballer’s comments and use of the national flag of East Turkestan, now used by independence activists, have triggered condemnation from the Chinese state, underlining the possibility that the club or the Premier League could be punished in the same way the NBA and the Houston Rockets were over general manager Daryl Morey’s support of anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said the athlete should come to Xinjiang and “have a look”. [Source]
"It really brought tears to my eyes."
Uighur activist @MahmutRahima says @MesutOzil1088's comments that Uighurs in China are abused and other Muslims stay quiet are true… & that she hasn't had any news of her family for nearly 3 years #r4today https://t.co/N6oXGTdQXq pic.twitter.com/myNnx0n4fP
Morey’s show of support for the Hong Kong protesters prompted censorship authorities in Beijing to order all NBA related news offline, sparked a mass disappearance of Houston Rockets paraphernalia in Chinese stores, and led CCTV’s sports broadcaster and streaming platforms owned by Tencent to stop airing NBA games (CCTV this week cancelled their broadcast of an Arsenal match). A Chinese Rockets fan recently told The Wall Street Journal about his illicit tactics to continue following the season. Early this month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hailed Tencent’s resumption of streaming games as a sign of “thawing” tensions between the NBA and Beijing.
At Quartz, Jane Li surveys online comments from Chinese web-users in the context of state media’s vague mentions of what Mesut Özil did to deserve their ire, noting confusion arising due to the censorship of the situation in Xinjiang:
Most Chinese media outlets, for example, only describe Özil’s remarks as “highly inappropriate” and “concerning Chinese sovereignty” without elaborating or referencing excerpts of the poem he posted. Dongqiudi, a Chinese soccer news app, issued a statement(link in Chinese) on social network Weibo clarifying that it did not translate Özil’s words due to the “high sensitivity” of the remarks, while state broadcaster CCTV avoided mentioning the player’s comments on the camps and instead focused on his use of “East Turkestan,” accusing him of supporting separatism and extremism. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid, said it would not translate the remarks because the website does not want to “publicize Özil’s opinions” (link in Chinese).
That’s led to confusion on the Chinese internet. “What exactly have you said?” one user commented under a post on Özil’s official Weibo account, with the comment being upvoted thousands of times. “Why can’t media translate the full remarks? It feels like giving someone a death sentence without announcing their charges,” said another user. A translation of Özil’s remarks that was posted on Weibo by Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Global Times, can no longer be found. Some Chinese news outlets such as The Paper have republished (link in Chinese) the post, which can still be accessed.
Chinese authorities have had to dial back similar nationalistic campaigns against foreign targets in recent months. For example, after NBA manager Daryl Morey’s show of support for the Hong Kong protests led to a boycott in October against not only his team, the Houston Rockets, but against the NBA more broadly, China reportedly told state media later to tone down its criticisms against the league, possibly because it worried the spat could harm its trade negotiations with the US. More recently, China’s attempt to drum up nationalistic fervor to combat the growing international scrutiny over Huawei also ended up backfiring as citizens, unwilling to go along with the country’s orchestrated propaganda blitz to mark the one-year anniversary of the arrest of CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, voiced their discontent instead over Huawei’s unjust treatment of workers on social media. Public opinion on Xinjiang certainly appears to be strongly supportive of the government’s narrative so far, but the government knows well that allowing citizens unfettered access to information comes with risks. [Source]
As Beijing struggles to contain information about the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, going so far as to regularly release white papers extolling the religious freedom it allows in the region, Uyghurs affected by the camps have begun to speak out despite the serious risk that comes along with doing so. After hearing one of these stories, a concerned Japanese artist recently drew a manga detailing one woman’s horrific experience, which has now gone viral. The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer reports:
The manga — as all comic-style works are known in Japan — describes Tursun’s imprisonment and torture by the Chinese government, the death of one of her young children while in custody, and the jailing of her husband for 16 years.
The manga, drawn by Japanese artist Tomomi Shimizu, has been translated into English, Chinese and Uighur. Shimizu said it has now been viewed on her website more than 240,000 times, and her tweets have drawn more than 2.6 million likes, retweets and other online engagement.
It has been cited by pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Hong Kong and generated feedback from the United States to Europe, from Russia to Taiwan.