Mesut Özil has fallen foul of an ever-more belligerent China

The Communist Party is more hostile to criticism than ever

December 17, 2019
Mesut Ozil of Arsenal during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: 15th December 2019. Picture credit should read: David Klein/Sportimage via PA Images
Mesut Ozil of Arsenal during the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium, London. Picture date: 15th December 2019. Picture credit should read: David Klein/Sportimage via PA Images

China’s state broadcaster banned the showing of Arsenal’s home game against Manchester City over the weekend following comments made by Mesut Özil in support of the Uyghur people in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Some have charged that what’s going on there is tantamount to cultural genocide (see, for example, here). Arsenal fans in China were spared the drubbing of their team by Manchester City, but the ban speaks to a big problem that China has: its thin skin and capacity for handling criticism.

The incident comes only a few weeks after a similar sporting row involving the NBA. The head of the Houston Rockets had tweeted some critical comments in support of the protestors in Hong Kong, and the broadcaster, CCTV, banned the showing of the team’s games and Chinese corporate sponsors and the Chinese Basketball Association suspended co-operation.

China’s sensitivity, reflected in bullying, bans, state lobbying and interference, has been increasing in volume and truculence.

In 2010, it banned imports of Norwegian salmon over the Nobel award to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. In 2012, it organised anti-Japanese protests over the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu to China) Islands in the Pacific. It also curbed tourism to and banned banana imports from the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. In 2016, it restricted commodity imports from Mongolia over a visit there by the Dalai Lama. In 2017, it acted to curb tourism to South Korea, which had agreed to install the US-supplied THAAD missile shield.

This year, China banned a UK trade mission after the then defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, had said a UK aircraft carrier would be heading out to the South China Sea. It also accused the UK government of “gross interference” over alleged support for the Hong Kong protestors. The Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, was refused a visa after making critical comments involving China at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Two Australian politicians were banned from visiting China for having made critical remarks about the increasingly fractious relationship between Canberra and Beijing. Two Canadians, effectively held hostage a year ago in retaliation for the detention in Canada, pending extradition hearings, of Huawei’s chief financial officer, still languish in prison while Canadian trade has also been threatened. China has also fallen out with Sweden over the latter’s defence of human rights, and Germany has been warned of retaliation if it doesn't accept Huawei as its 5G network supplier.

China’s actions have put companies in a difficult position where they have to make moral or political choices. They do business in China for one reason only, which is to make money for shareholders and themselves. Arsenal in China is a commercial enterprise that is trying to tap into 190m or so soccer fans, operates a sports bar and restaurant, and works with local companies to develop public participation in football and develop coaching standards. Its claim in the face of the Özil controversy that it is apolitical is factually true, as it is for all firms. Under current geopolitical circumstances though, it could also be seen as rather weak.

Consider some other examples of companies that have been in similar situations. Daimler was penalised in 2018 over using a quote from the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration demanded that 36 foreign airlines change their websites and documentation to refer to “Taiwan, Province of China.” Gap was targeted for a T-shirt that offended by omitting Taiwan from a map. Other multinationals that have fallen foul of the Chinese state and have had to climb down include Zara, Microsoft and fashion retailers such as Dior, Givenchy and Dolce and Gabbana.

China’s actions to curb trade and tourism and pressure companies tend not to last long, or be effective generally in interrupting business. That, though, is to miss the point. Why does the Chinese party-state indulge in such high profile expressions of disapproval, designed to bully, intimidate, and change behaviour?

Western thinking does not align with or understand state to state and corporate actions taken by the Chinese government in the face of criticism. We tend to think that the openness and transparency of our institutions and the rule of law make us resilient to, and tolerant of, dissent, and enthusiastic about political argument and debate.

Yet this approach does not hold sway in China, which has institutions a-plenty and a strong belief in law, but these are institutions that are organised to protect and advance the Communist Party, and it subscribes, as the cliché now goes, to rule by law, but not rule of law. This has always been the case since the founding of the People’s Republic, but there is no question that the rigidity of this governance system was changed for the better by Deng Xiaoping and his successors, and that it has reverted under Xi Jinping.

Indeed, under Xi, the absolute leadership of the Communist Party is paramount. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he said “government, military, society, and schools, north, south, east and west—the Party is the leader of all.” Everything that we have been watching in China since he came to power in 2012, and since that Congress, has corroborated the view that there are no lines anymore between the Party and the state.

At the 70th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People’s Republic this year, the resounding message was the centrality and virtue of the Communist Party in the narrative of China’s success, past, present, and future, and therefore the Party’s own legitimacy. We will hear much more about this as the Party prepares over the coming year for its centenary in 2021.

To understand China nowadays, whether it is the economy and society, or trade wars, geopolitical relations and the Belt and Road, we have to understand the centrality of the Party and its interests.

The re-set of China’s relationship with the west, which is a two-way street, owes much to this stark governance change under Xi. And it explains a lot about why companies, and sporting firms, are going to find it increasingly sensitive to do business in and with China.

The author is a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and at SOAS and author of Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy