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China reacts furiously to Mesut Ozil's condemnation of Uighur persecution

Former fans torch German-Turkish footballer's shirts and authorities suggest Arsenal player has been 'deceived'
An ethnic Uighur demonstrator holds a placard with a picture of English soccer club Arsenal's midfielder Mesut Ozil during a protest against China in Istanbul (Reuters)

China has reacted fiercely to Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil’s public condemnation of its crackdown on Uighur Muslims, with fans burning his shirt and authorities suggesting he has been “deceived”.

Online Chinese chatrooms and fan clubs have reportedly been shut down or suspended, while some outlets have stopped selling replica shirts with Ozil’s name on the back.

On Friday, the German-Turkish footballer posted a statement on social media lamenting the persecution of the people of East Turkestan, a name often used for the Chinese region of Xinjiang, where many Uighurs live.

"Qurans are burned, mosques were closed down, Islamic theological schools, madrasas were banned, religious scholars were killed one by one. Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet,” he posted in Turkish, using the blue national flag of East Turkestan, a short-lived republic in what is now Xinxiang province, as the background.

Around a million Uighurs are estimated to be held in Chinese detention centres, and the population in general is tightly controlled, including restrictions on their religious practice.

Wary that their player’s comments could backfire in China, a lucrative market for Premier League football teams, Arsenal on Saturday issued a statement on Chinese platform Weibo distancing the club from his comments.

Who are the Uighurs and why is China targeting them?

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According to multiple reports, more than one million Uighurs, a Muslim-majority Turkic people, are currently being held in internment camps across Xinjiang in western China (or occupied East Turkestan as many Uighurs refer to the region).

Human Rights Watch said in September 2018 that up to 13 million Muslims in Xinjiang have been subjected to “forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance in violation of international human rights law”.

The Uighurs have have been particularly targeted since Communist party leader Chen Quanguo became Xinjiang’s party secretary in 2016. Under his leadership, a massive surveillance infrastructure was unrolled across the region designed to monitor and control the Muslim community.

Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs have been routinely rounded up for practising their Islamic faith, including praying, observing Halal, or wearing clothes synonymous with being Muslim.

The Chinese government has even labelled Islam an “ideological illness” and has destroyed some mosques in the region. In the camps, detainees are forced to learn Chinese Mandarin, praise the ruling Chinese Communist Party and face recurrent psychological and physical abuse.

Uighur activists say that entire families have disappeared into the camps, or have been executed.

China has repeatedly denied allegations that it is persecuting the minority group, instead describing the camps as “vocational training centres” designed to counter religious extremism.

It also calls concerns raised by Uighur community members, human rights groups and others “unjustified” and an “interference in China’s internal affairs”.

"The content published is Ozil's personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics," the club said.

However, that appears to have failed to placate the Chinese authorities, and on Monday foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: "I don’t know if Mr Ozil has ever been to Xinjiang personally but he’s been completely deceived by fake news and false statements have influenced his judgment."

"We also welcome Mr Ozil to come to Xinjiang if he has the chance, to take a walk and look around, as long as he has a conscience, is able to distinguish right from wrong and uphold the principles of objectivity and fairness, he will see a different Xinjiang."

'I don’t know if Mr Ozil has ever been to Xinjiang personally but he’s been completely deceived by fake news and false statements have influenced his judgment'

- Geng Shuang, Chinese foreign ministry

State broadcaster CCTV on Sunday removed Arsenal’s match with Manchester City from its programming, as did Chinese video streaming website PPTV.

On Weibo, where Ozil has more than four million followers, a fan posted video footage of shirts bearing his name being burnt, while others on the platform vowed to do the same.

“Do you know how Arsenal fans in China have spent the last two days?” one Instagram user posted on his profile.

“They are struggling to understand how the club and idol they once loved has turned out to be a rumourmonger. Of course, if you intend to attack China, you are as insignificant in our hearts as dirty ants.”

Leaked documents published by the New York Times in November revealed how Chinese President Xi Jinping had ordered "absolutely no mercy" against the minority.

Earlier this year, the United States’ National Basketball Association (NBA) faced fierce criticism after running a training camp in the Xinjiang region.

The NBA has sustained considerable financial losses this year after a Houston Rockets official tweeted his support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, another highly sensitive topic for China.

Broadcasters reacted by stopping showing NBA games and the league lost many corporate partners in the country.