BEIJING – Chinese state broadcaster CCTV pulled a game between Arsenal and Manchester City from its program after the Gunners midfielder Mesut Ozil expressed support for mainly Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Ozil, a German of Turkish origin, condemned China’s crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the western region in a tweet on Friday, while criticizing Muslim countries for failing to speak up against abuses.
Sunday’s Premier League game in London between Arsenal and Manchester City was initially scheduled to be broadcast live by CCTV’s sports channel shortly after midnight on Monday, according to an earlier schedule published on the league’s official Weibo account.
However, by Sunday, CCTV had replaced the match on its schedule with a pre-recorded game between Tottenham and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
“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 wrote in Turkish on his Twitter account Friday.
“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 what Uighur separatists call East Turkestan.
China has faced growing international condemnation for setting up a vast network of camps in Xinjiang aimed at homogenizing the Uighur population to reflect China’s majority Han culture.
Rights groups and experts say more than 1 million Uighurs and people of other mostly Muslim ethnic minorities have been rounded up in the camps in the tightly controlled region.
After initially denying the camps existed, China now describes them as vocational schools aimed at dampening the allure of Islamist extremism and violence.
Arsenal on Saturday distanced itself from Ozil’s comments, saying it has “always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
Ozil’s comments drew anger online, with some users on Weibo calling for a ban on his games.
China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times called Ozil’s comments “false” and said in a tweet Sunday that he had “disappointed Chinese fans and football governing authorities.”
The cancellation prompted further criticism of 31-year-old Ozil, including from Arsenal fans.
“If it hadn’t been for Arsenal’s Ozil making trouble out of nothing, would the broadcast of the entire team’s match have been blocked in China?” one user asked Sunday.
“(Ozil) published inappropriate comments on foreign social media that would greatly hurt the feelings of Chinese fans,” another user said.
Despite the row, Ozil was still selected by Arsenal coach Freddie Ljungberg for Sunday’s game, which they lost 3-0.
However, he made little impact before being substituted on the hour mark and his slow walk to the touchline before booting away his gloves in frustration drew the wrath of some disgruntled Arsenal fans.
“The China thing, that is a political discussion that I leave for the club to deal with,” said Ljungberg.
“When it comes to other stuff, he should be annoyed when he comes off, but I am the coach, I took the decision we need more energy in the team.”
Arsenal is the latest foreign team to face the ire of Chinese broadcasters and audiences due to a player’s political stance.
The NBA in October sparked a backlash in China after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.
In response, CCTV canceled its broadcasts of two NBA pre-season games in China, and the Rockets have been absent from CCTV and internet giant Tencent’s programming schedule so far this season.