US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has backed Arsenal soccer star Mesut Ozil in condemning China’s treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority.
The US State Department has said that for the last two-and-a-half years, China has detained up to 2 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, in what some describe as internment camps.
Ozil, who is a Muslim, was highly critical of the Chinese regime on social media, but was met with scorn from China while the country’s state media pulled coverage of Arsenal’s English Premier League game against Manchester City Sunday.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang also accused Ozil of being “blinded by some fake news and influenced by some false words.”
Arsenal distanced itself from Ozil’s comments, but Pompeo tweeted his support for the under fire star Tuesday.
“China’s Communist Party [CCP] propaganda outlets can censor @MesutOzil1088 and @Arsenal’s games all season long, but the truth will prevail,” tweeted Pompeo.
“The CCP can’t hide its gross #HumanRights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.”
China had invited Ozil to visit Xinjiang to “distinguish right from wrong” after his social media messages.
“(In China) 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,” Ozil said in a post on both Twitter and Instagram.
Allegations of abuse are rampant, including in firsthand accounts given to CNN describing torture and forced political re-education under the threat of violence.
Defending his country’s human rights record at a United Nations forum in early November, Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng said that his country had made “remarkable progress” in the past four decades, including “lifting more than a billion people out of poverty.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang also said: “He [Ozil] doesn’t know that the Chinese government protects Chinese citizens, including the Uyghur ethnic people’s freedom of religious belief, in accordance with the law,” Shuang said during a daily press briefing Monday.
“I can tell him that China’s Xinjiang currently enjoys political stability, economic development, national unity, social harmony, and people are living and working in peace.”
CCTV had originally planned to air Sunday’s game live on CCTV-5 – the station’s sports channel – at 12:30 a.m on December 16 local time.
CCTV, which rarely explains why it changes its airing schedule, did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment as to the reasoning behind the decision not to show the game, which was the Premier League’s leading match Sunday.
Premier League champion Manchester City beat Arsenal 3-0 to stay in touch with leaders Liverpool.
Chinese video streaming website PPTV – a popular online platform – also pulled the game from its schedule.
Online sports platform Sina Sports released a post on Sina Weibo: “Ozil’s remarks have upset his fans in China. Just because he’s a well-known sportsman, it doesn’t give him the right to comment on issues relating to the national interests and he needs to explain himself.”
Dongqiudi.com, one of the most popular soccer sites in China, released a statement Friday saying: “Freedom of speech has boundaries and it should be used on the basis of respecting other countries’ sovereignty, not interfering in their domestic affairs.”
Meanwhile in an interview with state-owned newspaper Global Times Friday, a Chinese Football Association official expressed his “great indignation and disappointment” at Ozil’s remarks.
“‘East Turkistan’ is not a nationalistic issue, not a religious issue, but separatism, terrorism, extremism, and is disdained and rejected by peace-loving people all over the world
“Ozil’s remarks not only hurt many Chinese fans who liked him, but also hurt the feelings of the Chinese people. It is unacceptable to us.”
In a statement sent to CNN, Arsenal said it was “always apolitical as an organization.”
“Following social media messages from Mesut Ozil on Friday, Arsenal Football Club must make it clear that these are Mesut’s personal views,” added the Arsenal statement on Sunday.
This isn’t the first time that sport and politics in China have collided in 2019.
In October, the NBA’s relationship with China was tested following a now-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressing support for anti-government protests in Hong Kong. An estimated 300 million people play basketball in China.
In September, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying slammed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had said that China was attempting to “erase its own citizens” in Xinjiang and called on countries around the world to “resist China’s demands to repatriate” Uyghurs.
Hua called Pompeo’s statement “utterly defamatory and groundless,” adding that Beijing urged relevant US officials to face the facts, be objective and fair, and not adopt double standards on counter-terrorism, let alone to use this as an excuse to launch unwarranted attacks against China,” referring to Beijing’s claims that activities in Xinjiang are about stemming a terrorist threat in the region.
Additional reportlng by David Culver and Lily Lee