WASHINGTON—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Dec. 17 came out in support of Arsenal player Mesut Ozil for his criticism of China’s treatment of ethnic Uyghur Muslims, saying Beijing can censor the team’s football games but cannot hide rights violations.
The Arsenal midfielder, a German Muslim of Turkish origin, last week in social media posts called Uyghurs “warriors who resist persecution” and criticized both China’s crackdown and the silence of Muslims in response.
China’s state broadcaster CCTV on Dec. 15 removed Arsenal’s Premier League game against Manchester City from its broadcast schedule.
“China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor Mesut Ozil and Arsenal’s game all season long, but the truth will prevail,” Pompeo tweeted. “The CCP can’t hide its gross #humanrights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.”
The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between 1 million and 2 million people, mostly ethnic Uyghur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions in Xinjiang.
Washington has been ratcheting up its criticism of Beijing over Uyghurs simultaneously as it has continued its trade deal negotiations. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation requiring a stronger response to Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority.
U.S. President Donald Trump in November also signed into law congressional legislation backing protesters in Hong Kong despite angry objections from China.
What started as demonstrations against a now-withdrawn bill allowing extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China has morphed into calls for greater democratic freedoms, resulting in more than six months of protests in Hong Kong.
Arsenal on Dec. 14 tried to distance itself from Ozil’s comments after he posted messages on Twitter and Instagram. “The content he expressed is entirely Ozil’s personal opinion,” the official account of Arsenal said in a post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.
The controversy is the latest between the sports industry and China. In October, an executive with the National Basketball Association expressed support for the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, angering Beijing and suddenly putting on shaky ground the league’s estimated $4 billion market in China.
Also in October, California-based video game company Activision Blizzard was accused of kowtowing to the regime after it suspended a Hong Kong-based player from an e-sports competition after he shouted support for the protest movement in the city during a post-tournament broadcast.
By Humeyra Pamuk