Great Britain

Mesut Ozil, China and the failure to look closer to home before letting politics overtake sport

Arsenal have every right to be disappointed by Mesut Ozil’s comments about the plight of the Uighur Muslim population in western China. The club have suffered a backlash for their hamfisted attempt to distance themselves from the 31-year-old’s intervention on this political issue.

Ozil has been widely praised for his stance but Kurds can only laugh bitterly at the Arsenal superstar’s social-media statement about Chinese persecution of Uighurs. Another human-rights catastrophe is happening closer to home for the German, the child of Turkish immigrants.

Turkey has been accused of ethnically cleansing Kurds in northern Syria and there are allegations that Turkish armed forces used chemical weapons - white phosphorous bombs - against civilians during an October offensive against Kurdish areas. Turkey’s record against its minorities bears comparison with China’s.

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This not whataboutery. Ozil was pictured with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the hardline president of Turkey, before the World Cup in Russia, and the photo caused outrage in Germany, a nation that has been at odds with the repressive regime in Ankara.      

At the time Ozil claimed he posed with the politician out of respect for the presidential office, an explanation undermined when Erdogan turned up at the player’s wedding in Istanbul this summer to perform the best man’s duties. Perhaps a word in the autocrat’s ear could have helped avert the unfolding tragedy along the Syrian border? Surely that would have been a better use of the forward’s humanitarian instincts? The persecution of the Kurds is an issue where there is at least a remote chance that Ozil’s influence could have an effect.

Still, he is right about China. Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs is disgusting. The programmes of Sinofication in the ethnic-minority regions of the world’s most populous nation are brutal and repressive. Much of the criticism directed at Arsenal is because most people in the UK agree that the Chinese conduct in Xinjiang is vile. The majority of people claim to want to keep politics out of sport – except when they agree with those politics. Yet even amid the sympathy for the Uighurs there are a number of concerns.

Arsenal were unprepared for Ozil’s intervention. He must have known that expressing his personal views would have an impact on his employers. China responds badly to any criticism. Even in the luxury hotels across the country, international news channels are censored. When the likes of the BBC, Sky News or CNN run segments about Hong Kong or the Uighurs, the screen turns blank for the duration of the report. The Great Firewall of China is an attempt to restrict internet access for the nation’s citizens so that only information sanctioned by the state is available. It is hardly a surprise that Ozil has been erased from the collective Chinese consciousness – even to the point of being removed from the Pro Evolution Soccer video simulation game. Arsenal’s matches are unlikely to be shown on television while the player remains at the club. The knock-on effect explains the tepid response from the Emirates towards backing their highest-paid player.

For the Gunners to claim they are “always apolitical as an organisation” was mealy-mouthed. Arsenal have a long-term relationship with the state airline of the United Arab Emirates, a country with a dubious human-rights record, and have a sponsorship with an unsavoury regime in Rwanda. They chose not to make a comment about Hector Bellerin tweeting his followers in support of Labour in the run-up to the General Election.

They were never going to back Ozil. He is an overpaid underperformer and the club fear his right to free speech will hit them in the pocket. It is a tricky situation whenever an employer takes public action that goes against the business interests of their employer. Arsenal’s response is easy to understand, even if it does not draw much sympathy towards the club.

Another worry is the language used in Ozil’s post. The phrase “warriors who resist persecution” could be considered inflammatory. The Chinese have used the threat of Uighur terrorism to justify their worst excesses and have even pedalled suggestions that separatists have travelled to fight in Syria – Erdogan’s killing ground - with various groups, including Islamic State. There is a danger that these words can be used to develop that narrative. The Uighurs deserve better.

It is impossible to keep politics out of football and there is no reason to try and maintain the myth that sport can be ringfenced from reality. Ozil comes with so much baggage that it undermines his point, though. Those who consort with nationalist authoritarian strongmen lose their moral authority. Just ask the Kurds.