Great Britain

China's Arsenal blackout highlights Premier League's ethics problem

Across the street from the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, the venue of Arsenal’s first ever match in China in 1995, shoppers at an Adidas store ignore a rack of puffer jackets, football shirts and backpacks bearing the football club’s name.

One, inspecting a range of Adidas clothing released for Chinese New Year, says he had once been a fan of Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, but since the star midfielder had condemned China’s treatment of the country’s Uighur minority, he has changed his mind.

“Now I think he’s irresponsible. What he said damages national unity. As a football star with so many fans, he should not get into politics,” the shopper says. The man then goes on to admit that he is, in fact, a Manchester United supporter.

Controversy over Özil’s remarks this week has shone a light on the challenges – and compromises – foreign organisations face in trying to do business in China. But it also draws attention to the unique role played by sport, both in contemporary China and in exerting soft power for western countries abroad.

Eight days ago, Özil, a practising Muslim of Turkish descent, posted a message on Instagram urging support for the Uighur Muslim population in the north-western Chinese state on Xinjiang, more than a million of whom are believed to have been interned in detention camps. In response, Arsenal distanced themselves from their own player. Hastily issuing a statement via Chinese social network Weibo, the club said: “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.”

A week of controversy followed, with the debate reaching diplomatic circles. Arsenal were widely criticised in British media for washing their hands of Özil, and accused of only having eyes for their bottom line. The German found one unlikely ally, meanwhile, in the shape of the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who tweeted: “China’s Communist party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Özil … but the truth will prevail.”

In China, there was an immediate response too, with Arsenal’s fixture against Manchester City pulled from the TV schedules by state broadcaster CCTV. Özil was also the subject of individual sanctions when his social media accounts were blocked on the Chinese internet and his likeness removed from the Chinese version of the video game Pro Evolution Soccer.

In this way, the Özil affair echoed actions taken earlier in the year by the Chinese against NBA team the Houston Rockets, who found themselves persona non grata after their general manager, Daryl Morey, expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Two months after Morey’s post, Rockets games are still not being shown on CCTV or the service provided by the digital rights holder Tencent.

Back in England and, a week after the incident, the Premier League has yet to make any public comment on the affair. For Simon Chadwick, professor of sport enterprise at Salford Business School, this is not surprising. “I cannot imagine any scenario in which the Premier League would publicly speak out in support of Özil,” he says. “One suspects that financially it would likely be disastrous for the Premier League to make any explicit statement questioning, criticising or undermining Chinese state policy.“

Of the 20 clubs in English football’s top flight, Wolverhampton Wanderers, is fully Chinese owned, while another, the champions Manchester City, have Chinese investors who hold a 12% stake in the club. Other teams, such as Bournemouth and Crystal Palace, have sponsorship deals with Chinese companies. Perhaps most important of all to the Premier League’s financial success, however, is the TV deal struck with the company PP Sports for rights to broadcast live matches in China. The three-year agreement that runs until 2022 is believed to be worth £500m.

The Premier League has seen the value of its TV rights fall domestically of late and in several other markets, while China remains one source of real growth. The growth reflects increased demand for top-flight English football among Chinese fans and the government.

“This is really the horns of the dilemma for the PRC (Communist party)”, says Dr J Simon Rofe, a reader in diplomatic and international studies at Soas University of London. “They’ve actively encouraged the engagement with sport, particularly the NBA through [Chinese basketball player] Yao Ming in the noughties and then the Premier League, through President Xi Jinping himself. Think back to the image Sergio Agüero tweeted of Xi and David Cameron. The Premier League does have an influence and it has been cultivated by the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”

In 2016, Xi is believed to have had personal involvement in the drafting of a national blueprint for the game aimed at transforming China into a “soccer powerhouse” capable of winning the World Cup by 2050. Part of that plan involved gaining access to and learning from elite football in Europe. As a result, a number of English clubs, including Manchester City, have opened football academies in China.

The ability for football and the Premier League specifically to open doors has not been missed by the UK government. Alongside the Queen and the BBC, the competition is seen as one of the most effective mechanisms for exercising soft power on the international stage.

“Soft power is about getting people elsewhere in the world to see things the way that you do,” says Chadwick. “Football is part of Brand Britain, it is part of Britain’s soft-power strategy, and it helps sell who we are and what we do.”

Attempting to balance the interests of its stakeholders, the clubs, its sponsors and media partners, alongside its quasi-diplomatic responsibilities, means that the Premier League is unlikely to ever speak loudly about politically controversial matters. Its conversations will be held in private. Political messages will be delivered indirectly, as with the sight of Premier League players wearing rainbow-coloured armbands in support of LGBT rights, images that were beamed around the world last month. There will be disappointment among many who feel the organisation could use its clout to serve a greater good. Defenders of the Premier League say that what influence it does have derives in part from its discretion.

Chinese authorities have not reacted as strongly to Özil’s remarks as they did to Morey’s. There is an expectation that any uproar may soon disappear. In a country with an increasing appetite for televised sport, to damage one competition might seem unfortunate, to damage a second could seem like carelessness.

For ordinary Chinese fans, meanwhile, their passion for the game is not about to disappear. Li Shuangfu is the founder of Lanxiong Sports, a Chinese sports business media platform and says that the consequences of Özil’s remarks cut both ways.

“It’s immature for stars and clubs to make statements like that. You have certain responsibilities”, he says. “But the popularity, the fandom is huge. The bonds are very strong. if they cut the games for a long time, it’s going to be serious damage. For most of the Chinese Arsenal fans, the only way to connect with the club is the games.”

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