Emirates Stadium in London – an unmissable reminder of Arsenal’s immense wealth. Maybe it doesn’t need to compromise values for profits. Picture: Getty Images
Emirates Stadium in London – an unmissable reminder of Arsenal’s immense wealth. Maybe it doesn’t need to compromise values for profits. Picture: Getty Images

Football giant Arsenal bows down to China


ARSENAL specialises in capitulation.

I know this because for the majority of my life I have watched this formerly competent giant of English football find new, increasingly creative ways to humiliate itself on the field.

Now it has managed to do the same off it.

Last Friday, one of the club's star players, Mesut Ozil, published a lengthy post on his social media accounts, calling out China's brutal persecution of the Uighur ethnic minority within its borders.

China has incarcerated as many as two million Uighurs in facilities it describes as "vocational training centres".

In truth, they are modern-day gulags where prisoners are indoctrinated, abused and tortured.

Speaking in Canberra earlier this month, Uighur activist Rushan Abbas described it in suitably blunt terms as the "atrocity of the century" and the "largest incarceration of one ethnic group since the Holocaust".

It is, by any measure, a monstrous abuse of human rights.

That is what Ozil was criticising.

Instead of backing its star, as any organisation with a skerrick of moral clarity would do, Arsenal immediately acted to distance itself from him.

"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, in a craven statement posted on the Chinese social media site Weibo.

China is persecuting a minority group on a massive, very nearly unprecedented scale. Ozil had the guts to point it out. And Arsenal's top priority was to cover its own backside.

It weighed the potential financial cost of sticking up for Ozil against what was obviously the right thing to do, and decided the money was more important.

Of course, China threw a tantrum anyway, because that is what authoritarian governments always do. They're pathologically insecure and hypersensitive to criticism.

So the state broadcaster cancelled its plan to air Arsenal's high-profile match (and, incidentally, embarrassing capitulation) against Manchester City.

The Communist Party's mouthpiece, The Global Times, claimed Ozil had "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people", compared his comments to supporting the Nazis, and suggested Arsenal sell him to another team.

All of this consternation over one post, by one football player, on social media.

You might think I am being too harsh on Arsenal. After all, it's not as though the club came out in support of mass oppression, right? It just said it had no opinion.

Here is something to consider.

One day before Ozil hit publish on his criticism of China, another Arsenal player, Hector Bellerin, posted a political tweet of his own.

On the morning of the British election, Bellerin urged voters to support Labour and reject incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His message came with a pretty simple tagline: "F**k Boris."

What did Arsenal say in response? Nothing. There was no panicked statement saying Bellerin was expressing a personal view - none of that crap about the club staying out of politics.

It felt no need to respond at all, because it knew there was no risk of the British Government retaliating. No liberal democracy would dare do such a thing. If Mr Johnson had complained, he and his poor, hurt feelings would have been mercilessly ridiculed.

Now, imagine how China would have reacted if Bellerin had tweeted "F**k Xi Jinping". More importantly, imagine how Arsenal would have reacted.

That is why this story matters.

This sort of corporate cowardice is not confined to Arsenal. It has actually become disturbingly common. China is repeatedly, habitually bullying businesses into curtailing the rights of their own employees.

We saw it in October when the general manager of the Houston Rockets, Daryl Morey, published a tweet voicing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The NBA prostrated itself in response, posting a statement in Chinese saying it was "extremely disappointed" in Morey's "inappropriate remarks". He deleted his tweet. Again, there was too much money on the line.

We later learned China had asked the NBA fire Morey. On that ridiculous demand, at least, Commissioner Adam Silver refused to budge.

There are plenty more examples in recent times.

ESPN employees received an internal memo barring them from referencing Chinese politics when talking about the NBA controversy.

Nike removed Houston Rockets merchandise from its Chinese stores after Mr Morey's tweet.

Multiple airlines apologised for using "incorrect" maps of China that did not list Taiwan as part of the country.

Gaming company Activision Blizzard banned professional player Chung Ng Wai from its tournaments after he voiced support for the Hong Kong demonstrators in a post game interview.

Mercedes-Benz apologised for posting an Instagram photo with a quote from the Dalai Lama.

Paramount Pictures got rid of the Taiwanese flag on Tom Cruise's jacket in the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick.

Apple ditched the app HKMapLive, which had been used by Hong Kong protesters to track police activity.

All of these companies knew, and still know, that pissing off China could cost them a lot of money. The country's government is using that leverage to intimidate them, quashing anything that could be construed as criticism.

And the businesses are letting it happen. Instead of standing up to China's loathsome behaviour, they are rewarding it.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium cost a lot to build. Football is as much a business as Apple or Nike. Picture: Getty Images
Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium cost a lot to build. Football is as much a business as Apple or Nike. Picture: Getty Images

At some point, we need to decide whether corporations exist purely to maximise their profits, or whether they bear some broader social responsibility. Are there situations in which a business's values and principles should override money?

The answer is obviously yes. That's why otherwise competent executives who sexually harass their employees can, and should, be fired. It's why even the most talented football players can have their contracts torn up if they misbehave.

In fact, if you work for any big business, chances are it trumpets some kind of values statement.

Why do companies bother to talk such a big game - to portray themselves as corporate citizens with a social conscience - if they are so readily willing to ditch that conscience the moment it is challenged by a repressive government?

China had another go at Ozil on Tuesday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he'd been "blinded and misled" by "false" and "unfounded" reports.

"He doesn't know that the Chinese government protects Chinese citizens, including the Uighur ethnic people's freedom of religious belief, in accordance with the law," Mr Geng said.

You can click on this link for a detailed breakdown of how China is "protecting" the Uighur people, but suffice to say Mr Geng and the government he represents are full of cr*p.

Ozil decided to tell the truth. Arsenal chose not to. Add one more capitulation to the list.