China's response to a footballer's tweet about the repression of the Uighur minority shows how acutely sensitive it is to foreign commentary on human rights abuses in Xinjiang province – and underlines how important it is that the rest of the world speaks up loudly on those abuses. In a business – elite football – where players, fearful of upsetting sponsors or supporters, too often shy away even from mild controversy, Arsenal's Mesut Özil bravely used his social media channels to express horror at the mass incarceration of Muslim Uighurs.
Özil's characterisation of China's treatment of minorities in Xinjiang is entirely consistent with the analysis of human rights groups
His employer showed no such courage. In a message of its own on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, Arsenal dismissed the player’s comments as merely his “personal opinion”. Far from it. Özil’s characterisation of China’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang is entirely consistent with the analysis of human rights groups and testimony gleaned from Uighurs who have fled the region.
The China Cables, a leak involving the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and its media partners, including The Irish Times, last month detailed the bureaucratic planning and organisation behind a network of camps where up to one million Uighur Muslims and others have been detained and denied access to their families. A separate leaked cache of documents published by the New York Times last month showed how the ground was laid for the crackdown from 2014 onwards, including through private speeches by Chinese president Xi Jinping.
Beijing's response to Özil's comment was to drop plans by state broadcaster CCTV to air a match involving Arsenal on Sunday. Yet there are signs that such condemnation may be having some effect. This newspaper reported yesterday that at least two major "re-education" camps in Kashgar, in the Xinjiang region, have been shut down in recent weeks. Local authorities said it was because "all the students had graduated". The closure of the camps may not in itself bring the repression in Xinjiang to an end, but it appears to be a sign that Beijing is not as deaf to international opprobrium as it likes to pretend.