French soccer star Antoine Griezmann, who played for the winning team in the 2018 World Cup and is currently a forward for Barcelona, terminated his relationship with Chinese telecom giant Huawei on Thursday.
Griezmann cited a report that Huawei was involved in developing an artificial intelligence system that could spot members of China’s persecuted Uyghur minority through cameras and send “Uyghur alerts” to the police.
Griezmann’s Thursday morning post on Instagram, translated from French to English, read as follows:
Following strong suspicions that the Huawei company has contributed to the development of a ‘Uighur alert’ thanks to facial recognition software, I am announcing the immediate termination of my partnership with the company.
I take this opportunity to invite Huawei to not just deny these accusations, but to take concrete actions as quickly as possible to condemn this mass repression, and to use its influence to contribute to the respect of human and women’s rights in society.
Griezmann, 29, has been a Huawei global brand ambassador since 2017. Eurasian Sports Industry professor Simon Chadwick described his actions on Thursday as “pretty unprecedented” and “very significant,” given the huge amount of revenue China provides to both individual athletes and sports teams.
“What Griezmann has done is that he has not only spoken but acted as well,” Chadwick told Al Jazeera News.
Uyghur activist Jewher Ilham, whose father, Ilham Tothi, has been jailed by China since 2014, told Al Jazeera she has “huge respect” for Griezmann and others who are “willing to choose their conscience over the money.” She warned Griezmann that he “may face retaliation for his action.”
A Huawei spokesperson told the BBC the company is “obviously saddened by the decision of Mr. Griezmann to end his relationship” with it.
“We would like to extend an invitation to speak to him personally, to explain the work that is currently being done at the highest level, inside the company, to address the issues of human rights, equality, and discrimination at all levels, and to reassure him, and all our customers and partners, that Huawei takes these concerns very seriously,” the spokesperson said.
Huawei does not dispute the accuracy of the report about the “Uyghur alert” surveillance system, but discordantly claims that “non-discrimination is at the heart of our values as a company” and its products are “not designed to identify ethnic groups,” even though the report included documented proof that Huawei collaborated with another Chinese firm on a system that could visually identify Uyghurs and other minority groups.
Another soccer player, Mesut Ozil of the Arsenal club, described the Uyghurs as “warriors who resist persecution” and criticized Muslims worldwide for not speaking up on their behalf in December 2019. The club distanced itself from his comments, while China canceled the broadcast of some Arsenal games in retaliation.
Similar actions in the American sports world in defense of victims of Chinese repression have largely not materialized. When then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey expressed support for Hong Kong democracy protesters in October 2019, the NBA swiftly bowed to pressure from China, denounced Morey’s comments as “inappropriate,” and forced him to apologize. The NBA and its players famously have no such reticence about criticizing the United States or the American people. Despite the close relationship the NBA has with China, only one player has publicly condemned the repression of the Uyghur people: Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz.