By Peter Stebbings
China said on Monday that Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil was “deceived by fake news” after he posted criticism of Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur minority, and urged him to visit Xinjiang to see for himself.
Ozil, a German national of Turkish origin, condemned China’s crackdown on Muslim minorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang in a tweet Friday, and criticised Muslim countries for failing to speak up about the alleged abuses.
Arsenal have distanced themselves from his comments, but the English Premier League club’s 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City on Sunday was pulled from Chinese TV by state broadcaster CCTV.
The furore, which has potentially damaging repercussions for Arsenal and the Premier League in the lucrative Chinese market, follows the opprobrium heaped on the NBA in October after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
“I don’t know if Mr. Ozil has been to Xinjiang himself. But it seems he has been deceived by fake news, and that his judgment was influenced by untruthful remarks,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.
“If Mr. Ozil has the opportunity, we will be pleased to see him going to Xinjiang and having a look,” Geng said.
“As long as he has common sense, can make a clear distinction between right and wrong, and upholds the principles of objectivity and fairness, he will see a different Xinjiang.”
Earlier, a Global Times editorial slammed what it called a “clownish performance” from Ozil, 31, describing him as “confused” and “reckless” and saying he had abused his position as a public figure.
“Ozil’s move has ruined his image among Chinese fans and will have serious implications for Arsenal,” warned the state newspaper.
China has faced growing international condemnation for setting up a vast network of camps in Xinjiang, which critics say are aimed at homogenising the Uighur population to reflect China’s majority Han culture.
Rights groups and experts say more than one million Uighurs and people of other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been sent to the camps in the tightly controlled region.
China calls the facilities “vocational education centres” where “trainees” learn job skills and Mandarin in order to steer them away from extremism after a spate of deadly attacks in Xinjiang, in China’s far west.
“Korans are being burnt… Mosques are being shut down… Muslim schools are being banned… Religious scholars are being killed one by one… Brothers are forcefully being sent to camps,” Ozil tweeted in Turkish.
“The Muslims are silent. Their voice is not heard,” he wrote on a background of a blue field with a white crescent moon – the flag of ‘East Turkestan’, the term many Uighur separatists use for Xinjiang.
Arsenal was swift to post on Weibo, China’s leading social media platform, that the comments were “Ozil’s personal opinion”, adding that the club had a policy of “not involving itself in politics”.
But some Weibo users expressed delight at the team’s heavy defeat to City, which left the London club ninth in the Premier League.
Leading streaming service PPTV also appeared to have cancelled its screening of the match in China.
“I’m an Arsenal fan and today I cheered for City’s victory,” posted one user.
“Manchester City is a good friend of the Chinese people,” added another.
Ozil played only an hour of the City defeat before being substituted.
His slow walk to the touchline before booting away his gloves in frustration drew the wrath of some disgruntled Arsenal fans.
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