The Chinese government has said Arsenal footballer Mesut Ozil was deceived by “false news” after he posted messages on social media criticising Beijing’s treatment of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority.
“I don’t know if Mr Mesut Ozil has ever visited Xinjiang. It seems that he was blinded and misled by some false news reports and unfounded and false statement,” Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said.
“I’d like to tell him that Xinjiang now enjoys political stability, economic development, and social harmony where people all live and work in peace,” the official said, adding that Ozil was “welcome” to visit the northwestern region.
Chinese state broadcaster CCTV dropped the match between Arsenal and Manchester City from its programme on Sunday, two days after the German-born Muslim player added his voice to those alleging that the Uighurs are being persecuted by Chinese authorities.
“Korans [Qurans] are being burnt … Mosques are being shut down … Muslim schools are being banned … Religious scholars are being killed one by one … Brothers are forcefully being sent to camps,” Ozil wrote in Turkish on his Twitter account on Friday.
“The Muslims are silent. Their voice is not heard,” he wrote on a background of a blue field with a white crescent moon, the flag of what Uighur separatists call East Turkestan.
Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said the Chinese people did not take Ozil’s comments lightly.
“Fans have taken to social media here to express their outrage, and the China Football Association says the comments have hurt the feelings of China’s people,” Yu said.
“Here in China, any discussion of sensitive topics such as Hong Kong [which has been rocked by months-long protests] or the Uighurs, is strictly censored, and growing nationalism means any criticism of the Communist Party is felt as a personal attack on the Chinese people,” she added.
The United Nations and human rights groups estimate that between one and two million people, mostly ethnic Uighur Muslims, have been detained in harsh conditions in camps in Xinjiang as part of what Beijing calls an anti-terrorism campaign.
China has been accused of subjecting them to political indoctrination, torture, beatings and food deprivation.
After initially denying the camps existed, China then described them as vocational schools aimed at dampening the allure of “extremism” and violence. Beijing denies any mistreatment of Uighurs.
Meanwhile, Arsenal tried to distance itself from Ozil, saying on Saturday it has “always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”.
“The content he expressed is entirely Ozil’s personal opinion,” the London team said in a statement.
Beijing increasingly uses the threat of loss of access to China’s growing market as leverage to try to control what companies, sport teams, universities and others say or do abroad about political issues.
The country is the Premier League’s most lucrative overseas broadcast market. Rights were sold for $700m in a three-year deal that runs through 2022.
“Losing their broadcast rights in China, and the loss of football fans, will lead to an economic loss and damage their image. They must pay a price for this,” a young man on the streets of Beijing told Al Jazeera.
“You need [to] show respect – you can’t just make careless comments like this,” another man said, referring to Ozil’s remarks.
Others in the Chinese capital urged the midfielder to avoid discussing politics altogether.
“If you’re a football star you should comment only on football. If don’t understand this matter then there’s no need for you to make comments about politics,” a young woman in Beijing, told Al Jazeera.