Driven by profit: How the West is allowing the Chinese government to silence athletes
Pascal Swier via Unsplash

Increasingly, the future of sport seems firmly rooted in China – the most attractive market for sports clubs worldwide. Its population of 1.4 billion people coupled with its rapid yearly economic growth of about 6 percent has created a large middle class eager to spend money on entertainment. As sports associations scramble to profit as much as possible from this market, it follows that China’s influence on world sport has increased dramatically in recent years. 

This has led to some questionable decisions, such as when, in summer 2017, the German Football Association invited China’s U20 team to play in one of Germany’s fourth divisions, the Regionalliga Südwest. The Association ended up axing the plan after it was criticised for inviting the Chinese U20 team instead of one of the previous year’s relegated teams. The decision made economic sense as lucrative TV and sponsorship rights were sure to have followed suit.

In recent years it has also become clear that access to China’s lucrative market comes with a catch. As Simon Chadwick, professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, has put it: “If you choose to do business in China, China lays down the rules, not you”. Sports clubs are expected to follow the country’s laws and customs, without questioning its government. The latter condition has been a cause for concern among sports fans, considering many clubs and sports related controversies have been historically very political. For example, in 2018, the president of German football club Eintracht Frankfurt said there was no place in his club’s stadium for members of the far-right political party Alternative for Germany, whom he labelled as ‘Nazis’. Some sport leagues also have a history of getting involved in the politics of other countries. For example, in 2018, the NBA staged a game in South Africa with the aim of honouring Nelson Mandela’s legacy.

Athletes themselves have been taking increasingly political stances. This year English footballer Marcus Rashford kickstarted a campaign in June to extend the voucher scheme providing free meals to children from poorer families in the UK. His open letter to MPs led to a dramatic change of mind on Boris Johnson’s part, who extended the voucher scheme, due to finish in June, throughout the summer months. 

Therefore, with the rapid increase of sports associations’ ties with China, it was inevitable that athletes would speak out against perceived political injustices in the country. But violation of the country’s unwritten code of conduct has led Chinese authorities to go to extraordinary lengths to repress criticism. Recent incidents have highlighted their approach. In October of last year, Daryl Morey, the general manager of NBA side Houston Rockets, tweeted the following words: “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” This reference to the ongoing struggle between the inhabitants of Hong Kong and state officials over the perceived threat to the city’s special status unleashed a response from China which was swift and ruthless. 

The NBA’s 13 Chinese business partners (out of a total of 25) all publicly announced that they were either ending or suspending their relationships with the league. All Rockets’ gear was pulled from several Nike stores in mainland China after store managers received a memo dictating the merchandise be removed. The NBA game scheduled to take place a few days later in Shanghai went ahead but The Chinese government did not allow players and coaches to talk with reporters before or after the game, which was also dropped from Chinese television by the country’s state broadcaster. The government even cancelled an “NBA Cares” charity event to benefit the Special Olympics in Shanghai.

Unsurprisingly, with the league’s business in China being worth more than $4 billion, the NBA scrambled to handle the situation. A CNN reporter was shut down when she tried to ask two Rockets stars about the fallout from the tweet, with a team official telling her to ask, “basketball questions only”. NBA star athlete LeBron James tried to downplay the remarks, stating about Daryl Morey that “I believe he wasn’t educated on the situation at hand”. James’s comments were jarring to many, considering his strong record on standing up for social issues. 

Finally, the owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, insisted on the apolitical nature of the game. “We’re here to play basketball and not to offend anybody”. This statement is particularly relevant as no NBA club previously felt the need to distance themselves from the political statements of their members. For example, no comment was made when several players, including Lebron James, wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to combat police brutality in America in 2014.

Premier League Club Arsenal has also felt the need to distance itself from a member of the club in response to comments made about political issues in China. Last December, Arsenal player Mesut Özil released an Instagram post to try and raise awareness about the alleged detention of more than one million members of the Uighur population in the western province of Xinjiang: “The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men… but Muslims are silent… don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?”.

The statement brought out a wave of anger in a country where Arsenal is hugely popular. The state broadcaster CCTV and leading streaming service PPTV cancelled a broadcast of Arsenal’s Premier League game against Manchester City. Chinese state media warned that Mesut Özil’s criticism would have “serious implications” for Arsenal while the Chinese Football Association told local media it was “outraged and disappointed”. The publisher of the PES videogame franchise in China, NetEase, said the German had “violated the sport’s spirit of love and peace” and proceeded to remove him from the PES games. The fallback was still ongoing in mid-January, when Özil’s name had still not been mentioned by commentators during Arsenal matches.

The club immediately sought to limit the damage caused to its business in China, where it has numerous commercial interests tied to a large lucrative fanbase, by stating: “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” This statement seems pretty innocuous, but it marks the first time Arsenal felt the need to apologise for the political conviction of its players. 

For example, the club chose not to react when, the day before Özil’s post, Arsenal defender Héctor Bellerín urged people to vote in the UK elections, adding a derogatory hashtag aimed at prime minister Boris Johnson. “#FuckBoris #GoVote.” Even more conspicuously, back in 2018, the club’s official website ran an interview with Bellerín in which the right-back outlined his reasoning for being socially and politically engaged. Every year on Armistice Day, Arsenal, along with all other Premier league clubs, involve themselves in politics by wearing poppies on their shirts as a sign of respect for the British army.

In recent months it has become clearer than ever that the division between sports and politics is not as rigid as once thought. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter Movement and its increasing momentum during the summer, sports leagues have implemented measures to demonstrate their support for the Movement. The Premier League took the decision that players should take the knee before match kick-offs while the NBA added the Black Lives Matter Logo to a game court in Orlando, where the first match of the NBA restart was taking place. Moreover, on the 26th August the NBA, WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association), MLS (Major League Soccer) and the MLB (Major League Baseball) were only some of the American sports leagues to announce the postponement of games in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin on the 23rd August. 

Not only have these measures been extremely welcome, but they have also had a massive impact on spreading the movements’ message. Nielsen Sports conducted a study at the end of July showing that American sports fans are more likely to support the Black Lives Matter Movement when compared to other Americans. Yet, the sports worlds’ support for this movement makes the silence imposed on athletes towards alleged human rights abuses in China all the more disconcerting. 

As Demba Ba, an ex-Premier League player, pointed out to the BBC last month, Arsenal’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement stands in contrast with its stance on other political matters: “Arsenal talked about Black Lives Matter but when it was about Uighur lives Arsenal didn’t want to talk about it because of the pressure and economic impact… When there are financial benefits, some people close their eyes. Money has more value than real values”. Contradictions of this nature are becoming more and more widespread as China’s grip on the sporting world tightens. This is a direct result of sports clubs’ revenues depending increasingly on sponsorship deals with rich multinationals and the selling of television rights in countries with large audiences, making external influence harder to combat.

Generally, China has provided itself with a shield blocking out negative comments thanks to the increasing reliance of businesses and countries around the world on its investment and sport is no exception. If sports leagues are willing to counter the country’s influence, they must try to diversify their income and avoid relying heavily on the Chinese market. Otherwise it is likely censorship of this nature may continue until athletes learn that when it comes to Chinese politics, silence is indeed a virtue.