Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has canceled showing a game between London soccer team Arsenal and Manchester City on December 15 after Mesut Ozil, a striker for the London club, criticized Beijing’s brutal crackdown on indigenous mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking people in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
England’s top-tier soccer Premier League has a lucrative $700 million, three-year deal in China for broadcasting rights that runs through 2022, its most lucrative overseas market.
Ozil, a German with Turkish roots, criticized China’s brutal treatment of indigenous ethnic groups in the Xinjiang region in a tweet on December 13, in which he called Xinjiang East Turkestan, the term used by the region's indigenous people. He also criticized other Muslim countries for not standing up against the abuses, which include forced internment and torture.
Beijing said Ozil had been "deceived by fake news" and that he should visit the region to see for himself.
Xinjiang's largest indigenous group are Uyghurs followed by Kazakhs. The region is also home to ethnic Kyrgyz, Tatars, Tajiks, and Hui, also known as Dungans.
Han, China's largest ethnicity, are the second-largest community in Xinjiang.
United Nations human rights officials said in August last year that an estimated 1 million Muslims, mainly Uyghurs, were being held in "counterextremism centers" in China, while millions more have been forced into reeducation camps.
China has denied the facilities are internment camps, saying they are part of a "vocational education and training program" that helps people to "see clearly the essence and harm of terrorism and religious extremism."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on December 16 said Ozil had been "influenced by untruthful remarks" and invited the 31-year-old German midfielder to visit Xinjiang and "have a look" for himself.
Chinese state media added to the backlash against Ozil.
A Global Times editorial lambasted what it called a "clownish performance" from Ozil and said he had abused his position as a public figure, adding that there will be “serious implications” for the Arsenal team, AFP reported.
There are at least 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities forcibly interned at camps where they undergo political indoctrination, torture, beatings, and food deprivations, as well as denial of religious and linguistic freedom.
WATCH: Chinese 'Deradicalization' Camps: Education Or Persecution? (published in January 2019)
The U.S.-based National Basketball Association (NBA) felt the wrath of China in October when the Houston Rockets supported the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous region administered by Beijing.
The team’s general manager, Daryl Morey, had tweeted a seven-word phrase of support for the Hong Kong activists on October 4, setting off a firestorm: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
The tweet has since been deleted.
The Chinese Basketball Association subsequently suspended all cooperation with the team.
China is also a lucrative foreign market for the NBA, comprising about 10 percent of the league’s current revenue. The NBA in recent years has spent millions of dollars promoting itself there, building courts, giving free broadcasting rights, and bringing over stars for preseason games.