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Mesut Özil is a third-generation Turkish-German professional soccer player who is signed with the British Premier League club Arsenal. The club has a large following in China. On December 13, Özil tweeted two graphics showing the flag of East Turkestan (the name of a short-lived independent Uyghur state) and slogans in Turkish about the oppression of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority.
Arsenal Football Club must make a clear statement here: The published content was all Özil’s personal opinion. Arsenal as a football club has always adhered to the principle of not getting involved in politics.
Is this the next NBA-China scandal?
It’s at least a mini-version of it. Just like the Houston Rockets got hate from Chinese fans after the team’s general manager tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters, Arsenal fans in China are burning their jerseys and calling on the team to fire the offending player.
However, a Turkish-German player on the U.K.’s Premier League is not as clear a target for Chinese boycotts as the American-only NBA and its small number of teams. While China Central Television did pull a broadcast of an Arsenal game, Beijing has not inflicted league-wide punishments for this offense.
This incident is significant because it is one of the first where a popular athlete has spoken out about Xinjiang specifically and triggered nationalist outrage, leading to crisis PR from a brand. Other cases when companies have been forced to grovel for forgiveness in China have usually only involved Tibet, Taiwan, or more recently, Hong Kong.