The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature.
Arsenal had already been under immense pressure for the past couple of months. The English giants from North London have been languishing in 10th place in the table, a long way from the top-four place that its fans expect and insist. The club sacked head coach Unai Emery after a poor run of form and replaced him with former striker Freddie Ljungberg on a temporary basis. Until this week, the club’s primary concern was to find a new head coach that could get this team of stars firing again.
That was before key midfielder — and highest-paid player — Mesut Ozil posted about the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang last Friday to his 24 million Twitter followers:
— Mesut Özil (@MesutOzil1088) December 13, 2019
In the post, Ozil called on Uyghur “warriors to resist persecution” in addition to highlighting the detention camps and restrictions on Islam in the region — which he also referred to as East Turkestan. “Qur’an are burned, mosques are closed, madrasas are banned, and religious scholars are killed one by one,” he wrote.
“The brothers are forced into camps. Chinese men are settled in their families instead of them. The sisters are forced to marry Chinese men.”
Hours after the German of Turkish descent made the posts, Arsenal sent out a preemptive post on its Weibo page and braced for a response. Arsenal made it clear that Ozil’s post was his “personal opinion” and that “Arsenal as a football club has always adhered to the principle of not involving [itself in] politics.”
What followed from China was relatively mild compared to the uproar that followed after Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters.
The expected storm never really came. Instead, what hit Arsenal was an uncomfortable breeze that is beginning to blow over.
The Arsenal vs. Manchester City game was pulled from CCTV and online streaming service PPTV — a mercy for Arsenal-based China fans, as Arsenal lost 3-0.
China's State-run CCTV removed @Arsenal's Sunday match against @ManCity from its broadcast schedule, after Arsenal star @MesutOzil1088's false comments on Xinjiang disappointed Chinese fans and football governing authorities. Online broadcaster PPTV may also stop airing the game. pic.twitter.com/Ly1WQtcqGg
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) December 15, 2019
In addition, Arsenal was on the receiving end of some snotty posts on Weibo from state media and soccer fans, but nothing like what Morey and the NBA received.
Ozil, however, could not avoid official censure.
Gěng Shuǎng 耿爽, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, addressed Ozil’s tweet head-on. “I don’t know if Mr. Ozil has been to Xinjiang personally. But he seems to have been deceived by fake news, and his judgment has been influenced by untrue words.
“Ozil does not know that the Chinese government protects the freedom of religious belief of all Chinese citizens, including Uygurs, in accordance with the law, nor does he know China’s counter-terrorism measures in Xinjiang are supported by local people of all ethnic groups, and no terrorist incidents have occurred in Xinjiang for three consecutive years.
“We welcome Mr. Ozil to come to Xinjiang, and walk around to have a look. So long as he has a conscience, can tell right from wrong and maintain an objective and impartial attitude, he will see a ‘different’ Xinjiang.”
It is unclear at this stage why state media and foreign ministry have not gone in as hard on Ozil and Arsenal as they did with Morey and the NBA. One source at Xinhua told me that senior members of staff were told to avoid going down the NBA path because the government was not as keen to highlight Xinjiang internationally as it had done in Hong Kong. Xinjiang is seen as far more politically damaging overseas than a crackdown on violent protesters, according to the source.
Even in Chinese-language media, the response was muted. Weibo began removing comments that addressed the issue directly, while leaving comments that only attacked Ozil personally.
Only time will tell if this will have any serious long-term impact on the soccer club or the league, but for the time being, the worst looks to have passed. That could change, of course, if Ozil decides to speak out again.
Freeskiing and snowboard big air Olympic venue debuts
We got a first look at the new big air venue at Shougang Olympic Park in the far west of Beijing last weekend. The huge ramp and world’s first permanent big air facility hosted the 2019 Beijing leg of the FIS Air + Style Freeski and snowboard World Cup.
The ramp sits in the middle of a disused Shougang steel factory, which is currently in the middle of a huge renovation, and is quite the presence in the park. Also in the park is the home rink for the Kunlun Red Star KHL hockey team, as well as the offices of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games organizing committee and the rink for the speed-skating teams.
The event didn’t feature any Chinese athletes in the finals, with Norway dominating the skiing and Japan and the U.S. getting a gold each in the snowboarding. Check out the insane winning runs of snowboarder Max Parrot and of skier Birk Ruud below.
ITTF Grand Tour Finals ends with Fan Zhendong as undisputed No. 1
There was a passing of the torch at the ITTF Grand Tour Finals as Fán Zhèndōng 樊振东 thrashed Mǎ Lóng 马龙 4-1 to claim the grand prize. China’s team captain Ma Long had a good tournament and managed to edge past then-world No. one Xǔ Xīn 许昕 in the semifinal, but he found himself outplayed in the final.
Fan’s imperious form this season was solidified further as he only dropped four sets in total in the whole tournament. Tomokazu Harimoto — the Japanese teenage sensation — fell in the quarterfinals to Xu Xin.
China won across the board except in the women’s doubles, where Japan won. The steady rise of Japanese players will be one of the key narratives and worries for China’s ping-pong players and federation officials in the upcoming year, with the Olympics approaching.
The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.