First the NBA, Now Soccer: Arsenal Star’s Uighur Comments Risk Another League’s China Business
First it was basketball. Now it’s soccer.
The two most popular foreign sports leagues in China are finding it increasingly difficult to work in the country, home to the world’s largest population and fastest growing sports fanbase.
Just a few months ago, general manager for the Houston Rockets Daryl Morey sent a short tweet in support of the Hong Kong protests that sent the N.B.A. and China’s relationship into chaos. Now, Arsenal soccer star Mesut Özil’s Instagram post about China’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang is threatening China’s relationship with the English Premier League (EPL), the world’s fourth biggest sports league.
In his post Özil, a star German midfielder of Turkish descent, called out China for perpetuating human rights violations, religious and ethnic discrimination, and mass detention of China’s western-muslim minority.
“[China] burns their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men,” Özil wrote. “But Muslims are silent. They won’t make a noise. They have abandoned them. Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?”
Özil’s statement comes amid a spate of recent reporting on leaked documents detailing the formation and implementation of policies to surveil, round up, and detain up to a million Chinese Uighurs in Xinjiang, which Chinese officials have vehemently denied.
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said that Özil “was deceived by fake news.”
“He will see a different Xinjiang [if he visits],” Geng added. “Xinjiang enjoys political stability, economic development, national unity, social harmony, and… people there live and work in peace and contentment”
China’s state broadcaster CCTV cancelled the showing of a marquee game between Özil’s team Arsenal and EPL powerhouse Manchester City, and on Monday a Chinese newspaper warned of additional consequences for the club. Arsenal has distanced itself from Özil’s comments, saying that they were only the player’s “personal opinions” and the club does not “involve itself in politics.”
It is unclear whether Arsenal’s games will return to Chinese airwaves anytime soon, yet if the NBA’s recent troubles in China is any indication, it might be a while. Houston Rockets games remain banned from official broadcasts in China, even though die-hard Chinese Rockets fans have found “low key” ways to communicate and watch the games.
Arsenal has long been an extremely popular franchise in China, and even opened a Arsenal-themed restaurant in Shanghai earlier this year to cater to their fans and support their Chinese brand.
More than just Arsenal however, the future of Chinese relations with major international soccer leagues and foreign sports leagues in general is being called more into question. While silence and de-escalation has helped the NBA and China preserve relations (even after some Chinese sponsors dropped deals with the league), repeated controversies may indicate a growing fragility for international leagues working in China.
And in China, this spat comes at a time of massive growth in the game.
Since releasing a national strategy for growing soccer in 2015, China has rapidly expanded its soccer-playing population and become more intricately tied to foreign soccer leagues like the EPL. The country, however, remains far from being a global soccer powerhouse and Fifa currently ranks its men’s national team as 75th best in the world, putting it far outside of World Cup qualification.
But while the country may be lacking in homegrown talent, its fanbase has grown significantly. China’s over 230 million soccer fans are now second in number only to its basketball fans, which is why a Chinese company paid over $700 million for three years of streaming rights to EPL games, a contract that kicked in this year.
Chinese companies and interests are also now deeply involved with the EPL. In 2016, a group led by the Chinese conglomerate Fosun International purchased the Wolverhampton Wanderers, who now currently rank slightly ahead of Arsenal in the EPL standings. Chinese firms also own several valuable ‘shirt sponsorships’ for various EPL teams.
Potential conflicts between China and global soccer are not just limited to the EPL. In October, soccer’s global governing body FIFA received backlash for ignoring human rights concerns and awarding China with the rights to host the first ever ‘club world cup’ in 2021.
FIFA, at least, seemed prepared to weather these incidents and work with China.
“There are problems in this world, everywhere… [and it] is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world,” said FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the time. “The mission of FIFA is to organize football and to develop football all over the world.”
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