Western sports’ two most powerful figures to have publicly criticised the Chinese Communist Party were met with hostility – and not just from China, but their own employers. Now, a contest looms.
Mesut Özil has, in all likelihood, played his last game for Arsenal Football Club.
At first glance, the rapid fall from grace of a player who, even at his peak, was somewhat of an enigma should not be surprising. For years, his languid style and dispirited body language led to detractors determining that now was the time for the Gunners to cut loose their once-magical playmaker and look to the future instead.
Well, finally it…sort of…happened. The announcement came not in a carefully constructed goodbye, nor an eyewatering, pre-retirement move to the Chinese Super League (yep, definitely not that), but in October’s omission of the 32 year old German midfielder from Arsenal’s 2020/2021 Premier League squad.
“It’s a football decision,” explained Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal boss, now approaching the end of his first 12 months in the job. After leaving Arsenal’s highest paid player, who continues to earn an eye-watering £350,000 ($467,000) a week, out of his 25-man squad, Arteta was always going to have to some explaining to do.
“My conscience is calm because I’ve been really fair with [Özil.] My job is to get the best out of every player. With him I have failed.” The fact that Arteta immediately clarified it was a football decision, proves he is, at the very least, aware of the numerous rumours swirling; that he bore all and any blame for this messy divorce squarely on his own shoulders, proves he is desperate to dispel these rumours and move on.
It needs said that in Arteta, Arsenal seem to have found the man to guide them back towards the top of English football. Already, during his brief tenure, Arsenal have been crowned FA Cup and Community Shield champions, and though they have made a stuttering start this campaign, the young, Spanish manager was hired with a view to the long term future. If he believes the squad is better off without their number 10, there is no reason to doubt him.
It does not bode well however, that the singular Western, sporting superstar to openly and unapologetically criticise the Chinese Communist Party for their human rights abuses finds himself on the side-lines, less than a year after speaking out.
We laud the ‘freedom of speech’ as a cornerstone of contemporary, democratic societies, yet it has never, and frankly could never, guarantee freedom from consequence. Few consequences are more destructive than those of the financial variety; and sports are entertainment, meaning the income of everybody who works in the industry – from athletes to executives to coaches and physios alike – is dictated by the money they are expected to generate. Given how much Western sports leagues now profit from global broadcast deals and sponsorships, if someone, even as influential and celebrated as Mesut Özil, offers their perspective on controversial, global issues, they inevitably jeopardise their employment.
In December 2019, Özil took to social media to condemn the CCP for their treatment of Turkic Uyghur Muslims in East Turkistan. He accused the Chinese government of burning Qur’ans, closing Mosques, banning Madrasas and killing religious scholars one by one. He called the Uyghurs “a community of fighters who resist persecution,” and, as a third generation Turkic immigrant himself, implored Muslims around the world to raise awareness of the persecution taking place in the Xinjiang province.
Özil’s post was not conjecture. In 2014, following a series of domestic radical Islamist attacks, the CCP announced it was launching a “People’s War on Terror.” In 2017, authorities began sweeping ethnic Uyghur Muslims into detainment camps in the Xinjiang province. It is now believed as many as 1.8 million people have been imprisoned between 380 suspected facilities. Despite assurances from the Chinese government that they were scaling back the system, the 380 camps reported in September of this year indicates a 40% increase from previous estimates.
The CCP initially refused to acknowledge the existence of these sites, however, with international pressure mounting and irrefutable evidence (including satellite images and leaks from within the CCP) obtained by media outlets such as the New York Times, Associated Press and BBC, the Chinese government ceded in early 2019, officially labelling them “Voluntary Learning Centres.” They were likened to boarding schools, “where the students eat and live for free.”
Equipped with watch towers, ten metre high walls, armed police and loud speakers, the reality of these camps dwarfs even the most hellish caricatures of Victorian era boarding schools. Free Uyghur Muslims, an online social activist for Uyghur rights, says the camps amount to “cultural cleansing,” where detainees are “brainwashed, forced to eat pork, drink alcohol and denounce themselves as Muslims.” Increasingly, there are reports of forced manual labour, revealing the CCP’s desire to further utilise the camps as sources of cheap work.
Yet perhaps the most unsettling evidence of the human rights abuses transpiring in Xinjiang came in July, when federal authorities in New York seized 11.8 metric tons of hair, believed to have been taken from those locked inside Chinese prisons and detention camps.
It is apparent that these camps are not only much more sinister than the “voluntary education centres” claimed, but that there is nothing voluntary about them. A Chinese government database uncovered by the AP earlier this year shows the surveillance the CCP keeps on families in Xinjiang, and what criteria they look at when deciding who is interned. Though the Chinese government still claim that extremism is the only reason why people are detained, the database shows their surveillance of Uyghurs extends to prayer, mosque attendance, and even beard growth.
Moreover, as part of a coordinated effort to dismantle the Uyghur community, the CCP target families, friendships and households. According to Omer Kanat, director of Uyghur Human Rights Project, “officials create detailed files on their friends and relatives, looking for guilt by association in a very literal sense.” The AP database also revealed that Chinese state surveillance ranks families into categories such as “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy”; having “ordinary” or “good” attitudes toward the government; and being “light” or “heavy” religious atmospheres. All these classifications are kept regardless of criminality.
For all the proof supporting Mesut Özil’s cry for help last year, Arsenal immediately distanced themselves from their once-record signing. They abandoned the man who joined from Real Madrid in 2013, and did so much for the club, with Özil creating more chances and providing more assists during his first five years in North London than anyone else plying their trade in England’s top flight of football.
Arsenal’s statement, shared on Weibo among other forms of social media, read: “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
In China, the response to Özil’s comments was equally prompt, and even more calculated. His player was removed from three video games in the country, and Arsenal’s December 15 match against Manchester City was removed from Chinese state television as well as online streaming sites. Gěng Shuǎng, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, claimed that Özil had been deceived by fake news and invited him to visit Xinjiang for himself. “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,” the official announced in a statement.
The CCP’s response was neither emotional nor impassioned. It was not even angry. There was an ice-cold chillness to it which made it all the more unsettling. It was almost as though the they had been here before.
The Houston Rockets’ separation from their General Manager, Daryl Morey, was a prettier affair than the saga still unfolding in North London. Morey himself announced his resignation on October 16, in a full page love letter published in the Houston Chronicle. He thanked Houston fans, the Rockets organisation, star shooting guard James Harden, and many more, for “the most amazing 14 years of [his] life.”
With news of Morey’s departure, came a deluge of appreciation for the outgoing executive. Despite a championship ring eluding Morey and the Rockets, the team did not finish below .500 during any of his 14 years in charge. They reached two Western Conference Finals (both times coming up short against the Golden State Warriors – in 2015 against arguably the greatest team of all time, and in 2017 against that same team plus another bloke called Kevin Durant). The success of Morey’s Rockets is illustrated by the fact that since 2008, only Greg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs – a team to feature Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Kawhi Leonard during the span – have won more NBA games.
Furthermore, Morey’s Rockets transformed the NBA. Brad Pitt is yet to play him in a biopic, but Houston’s style of basketball – avoiding mid-range jumpers, prioritising threes, free-throws and lay-ups – became the NBA’s version of Moneyball, and franchises around the league soon emulated their approach. Morey was not afraid to experiment: the team he left behind did not have a single player over 6ft 8in in its playing rotation, and while last off-season’s Russell Westbrook – Chris Paul trade did not pan out for Houston, the presence of petulant new team owner Tilman Ferrita has to be acknowledged when criticising the move. As does James Harden’s ego.
Okay, enough basketball talk. I imagine you have an idea what is coming next.
On October 4, 2019, a little over a year before his resignation (and two months before Mesut Özil’s call to action), Daryl Morey tweeted an image reading, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”
All hell broke loose. The Chinese Basketball Association suspended ties with the Houston Rockets. Streaming services, sponsors and NBA retailers in China followed suit. Morey was forced to delete the tweet and publicly apologise. The NBA produced a statement of its own, calling his actions, “regrettable,” and assuring fans that Morey’s support for Hong Kong protestors was, “not representative of the Rockets or the NBA.” Lebron James, who has four times been named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and is widely considered one of the two greatest basketball players of all time, labelled Morey “misinformed.” Aforementioned Houston owner Tilman Ferrita said, “The Rockets are not a political organisation,” and speculation was rife over whether or not Morey’s position with the team was still tenable. He held on – just.
Morey’s immediate backtracking, and the rest of league’s distancing from his comments, was enough for the NBA to preserve its title as China’s most popular sports league, however it was not sufficient to avoid serious damage – roughly $400 million’s worth in the four months following Morey’s tweet according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver – or, crucially, for China to forgive the Rockets. The team remain banned in the country: their playoff games were not shown this year, and their players, stats and merchandise are still removed from all official websites and stores.
It is important to know that the greatest Chinese basketball player of all time played for the Houston Rockets. When they selected Yao Ming with the first pick in the 2002 NBA draft, the Rockets made him the first ever foreigner to be picked no.1 overall.
Chinese fans followed (in spirit) their 7’6” big man to Houston, and, staggeringly, by 2006 the highest selling basketball shirt in China was not Yao Ming’s, but Tracy McGrady’s – Ming’s Rockets teammate. Though Ming retired in 2011, the Rockets organisation remains incredibly successful in China. Only the Golden State Warriors have more fans in the world’s most populous country.
To understand the NBA’s response, one must realise that China is far and away the league’s biggest market outside of America. When Tencent – a Chinese technology conglomerate and the official digital media partner of the NBA in China since 2009 – renewed their broadcast agreement with a mammoth five-year, $1.5 billion deal in July 2019, projections put NBA China’s valuation at $5 billion. While the fallout caused by Morey’s tweet put a dent in this juicy, round number, Silver’s $400 million estimate dwarfs what the cost could’ve been, and will likely be reacquired as the NBA attempts to build back bridges with China stronger than before.
So what was the “fight for freedom” Morey tweeted about? Last year, protests swept across Hong Kong in response to a new extradition bill in the semi-autonomous Chinese region. When the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it did so under the much recited principle: “one country, two systems.” While Hong Kong retains its own laws, the 2019 extradition bill would have permitted the region’s government – specifically it’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam who has long been seen as an ally of the CCP – to consider extradition requests from a list of countries Hong Kong does not presently have extradition treaties with. Mainland China was on that list.
The move sparked global concern for journalists, lawyers and activists in the region, who oppose China’s justice system, and would now be susceptible to it. Specifically, concern over China’s arbitrary internment rules (those which have been on full display in Xinjiang), its imbalanced judiciary trials, and its stripping of liberties and even torture of those who are detained.
Hong Kong’s impassioned resistance to the bill attracted global attention. As the movement grew to include hundreds of thousands of protestors, who were met by armed police, tear gas, and violence, many Western democracies – including the United States and United Kingdom – vowed to defend the rights of those protesting. In Morey’s words, they vowed “to stand with Hong Kong.”
Yet the NBA condemned Morey all the same. In fact, such was the disgust with basketball’s response, it led to one of the few cross-aisle agreements in recent American politics. Current Senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, tweeted that he was proud to see Morey call out the Chinese Communist Party, and accused the NBA of “shamefully retreating in pursuit of big $$.” And Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Cruz in Texas’ 2018 Senate race, said, “The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights. What an embarrassment.”
While the NBA seems to have just about clung onto the bulk of their Chinese business, in doing so they sacrificed the reputation they so covet: as the sporting paragon of social justice. They appeared feeble, pathetic and, to use my dear Lebron’s word, (grossly) “misinformed.”
Even when factoring in the financial losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the NBA’s 2019-2020 revenue is $8.3 billion. The Premier League, who are tipped to lose over $1.25 billion from Covid, still have a projected revenue of $5.5 billion. These staggering numbers rank them the third and fifth most profitable sports leagues in the world, respectively. While very different organisations (though the American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool seem hellbent on converting their football clubs into franchises) both leagues inevitably want more money, and are desperate to maximise the potential market still awaiting them in China.
The similarities do not end there. When restarting their seasons after Covid-19 induced breaks, both leagues took extensive measures to raise awareness of social injustice. For the first round of Premier League matches in June, every player had their name replaced by ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Since then, all players, referees and coaches have continued to take a knee in support for racial equality before each game, and Black Lives Matter is printed onto shirt sleeves.
Inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble, players took a knee before games, could choose what message to put on the back of their jerseys, and ‘Black Lives Matter’ was painted across the courts. The focus on social justice intensified further following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, halfway through the play-offs. The Milwaukee Bucks – the Eastern Conference’s number one seed and the only NBA franchise based in Wisconsin – refused to play their impending game 5 against the Orlando Magic, throwing the conclusion of the NBA season into doubt. Play resumed after three days, but only as the result of extensive talks between the players, the league and organisations set up to combat police brutality and racial inequality.
I’m not sure what’s changed between the Özil and Morey incidents and now? I suppose professional sports organisations either realised there is nothing political about supporting an oppressed racial minority; or, they realised that they can use their platform to advocate for causes their players believe in.
Frankly, I don’t care which it was. The stance each league took was a powerful statement for necessary and long overdue social change.
I can however, tell you something that has not changed between the Özil and Morey incidents and now: the subjugation of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang; or, the draconian surveillance and stifling of democracy in Hong Kong. And still, for all their recent advocacy, neither league, nor their players, nor their teams, dare speak out against the Chinese government. Their tongues are tied by the dollar.
Western sports faces a decision: choose to lead the way as western organisations who prioritise social justice over profit; or return to the “shut up and dribble” mentality of Laura Ingraham that was present in years gone by. It is up to them, of course, but they must decide. For presently they reside in no man’s land, palpably hypocritical, and simply choosing which political plight suits their narrative and will deepen their pockets.
We must not forget sports’ integral, historical role as a vessel for political progress. Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali are two of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century, forever enshrined for their courage in the face of adversity, as much as their athletic achievements. The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics is seared into history – and not just sporting nor Olympic history, but human history.
When, in 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during America’s national anthem to protest police brutality and ongoing racism, he too jeopardised his employment. Soon he found himself without a job, and like Mesut Özil, those involved were swift to clarify it was a purely “football decision.”
Yet Kaepernick proved to be ahead of his time. In the last 12 months, athletes around the world have taken a knee to support the same issues Kaepernick did four years ago. He is now one of Nike’s – who’s only statement on events in Xinjiang was to distance themselves from accusations of exploiting Uyghur forced labour – most high profile stars. Across Kaepernick’s face, broadcast onto Nike billboards across the world, read the words:
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”
Well, I reckon that about sums up the question now facing the west: what do we really believe in, and just how much are we willing to sacrifice to achieve it?