Chinese state media unloaded on German-Turkish soccer star Mesut Ozil on Monday, accusing him of “hate speech” after he criticized Beijing’s policy of the detention and imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims in the region of Xinjiang.
The controversy began when Ozil, who plays for the Premier League side Arsenal and the German national team, tweeted out a poem intended to raise awareness of China’s mass repression of Uyghur Muslims. Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group native to China’s westernmost province, Xinjiang, which many refer to as East Turkestan.
“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,” the poem read.
“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 East Turkestan. “The Western media and states have been raising awareness of their flight for months. Why haven’t the Muslim world?”
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) December 13, 2019
Addressing a press conference on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang insisted that Ozil had been “deceived by fake news.”
“I don’t know if Mr. Ozil has been to Xinjiang himself. But it seems he has been deceived by fake news, and that his judgment was influenced by untruthful remarks,” he said. “If Mr. Ozil has the opportunity, we will be pleased to see him going to Xinjiang and having a look.
“As long as he has common sense, can make a clear distinction between right and wrong, and upholds the principles of objectivity and fairness, he will see a different Xinjiang,” he continued.
The most severe criticisms of Ozil were reserved for an editorial in the English-language propaganda outlet Global Times, which described him as “reckless” and even guilty of “hate speech.”
“Ozil’s move has ruined his image among Chinese fans and will have serious implications for Arsenal,” who distanced themselves from the comments, the editorial read. “How can Chinese fans of Arsenal put up with someone who hates China so much when they watch Arsenal matches?”
“[His] post is full of pan-Turkism and Islamic fundamentalism, which can be counted as hate speech, which is also seen as disruptive in the Western world,” they continued.
A similar controversy recently took place with basketball megastar LeBron James, who faced a barrage of criticism for refusing to condemn the Chinese communist regime after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey publicly declared his support for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong.
China is facing increasing international condemnation over the internment camps. According to countless witness testimonies, Chinese officials use a variety of brutal physical and psychological methods to force detainees into renouncing their Islamic faith and becoming followers of the communist state.
Beijing’s exaggerated response to recent controversies is a reminder of the importance of sports to the Chinese state, which remains acutely aware of the country’s inferiority, particularly at soccer, where their national team has repeatedly failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Last year, leader Xi Jinping last year unveiled plans to develop a world-class soccer team capable of winning the World Cup. His plan involves investing heavily in the sport at a grassroots level while promoting fierce competition nationwide.
However, clubs in the Chinese Super League are already attempting to make big strides in improving the quality of the competition, mainly by paying foreign players astronomical salaries in order to sign and play for their teams.