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Chinese Block Coverage of Premier League Game over Soccer Star’s Uighur Comments

Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil in Emirates Stadium, London, Britain. December 15, 2019 (John Sibley/Reuters)

Chinese state television blacklisted the broadcast of an English Premier League Sunday matchup between Arsenal and Manchester City after Mesut Ozil, a star midfielder for Arsenal, made critical comments regarding China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

The Chinese Football Association showed “great indignation and disappointment” at Ozil’s comments, according to the Global Times newspaper published by the Communist Party.

Ozil, who himself is a devout Muslim, posted the comments on Saturday to his social media platforms in the buildup to the game.

“East Turkistan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion,” the post reads. “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?”

Arsenal was quick to distance itself from the position of its highest-paid player.

“The content he expressed is entirely Ozil’s personal opinion,” the north London club said on Chinese social media network Weibo. “As a football club, Arsenal always adheres to the principle of not being involved in politics.”

A day before Ozil’s comments, another Arsenal player, Spanish defender Hector Bellerin, tweeted a political message ahead of the U.K.’s general election, which did not elicit a response from the club.

China is the Premier League’s most lucrative overseas market, with broadcasting rights selling for $700 million in a three-year deal that runs through 2022. Arsenal, which last visited China on a preseason tour in 2017, also has chain of restaurants in the country.

Ozil, a German Muslim with Turkish heritage, has drawn past criticism for his support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who served as Ozil’s best man at his wedding in Istanbul in June.

In 2018, after being criticized for posing in a picture with Erdogan, Ozil quit the German international team, citing racism.

“I am a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” Ozil said at the time.

The Premier League is the latest to run afoul of China’s no-tolerance policy of criticism. In October, the NBA came under fire from both China and the U.S. for its handling of Rocket general manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters.

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