The term “unperson” — an individual whose entire existence has been scrubbed from the collective consciousness by an act of the government — was introduced to the public lexicon by George Orwell’s “1984.” In that context, it was something that was done to members of the party — internal objectors to or deviators from state totalitarianism.
It’s a measure of China’s power in 2019 that it believes it can make an unperson, at least internally, out of one of the most recognizable international figures in the arena of sports simply because he — like much of the rest of the world — has condemned China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims.
German soccer star Mesut Ozil, one of the highest-profile players for London-based English club Arsenal, has been deleted from the Chinese version of the popular soccer game “eFootball Pro Evolution Soccer 2020” by its developer.
Ozil, an ethnically Turkish Muslim, denounced the Chinese government’s treatment of the group on social media, calling the Uighurs “warriors who resist persecution,” according to the BBC. He also criticized Muslims for remaining silent on the persecution of the Uighurs.
Well, that couldn’t stand. NetEase, which publishes the “Pro Evolution Soccer” franchise in China, confirmed that he had been unpersoned from three titles it published there.
“The German player Ozil posted an extreme statement about China on social media,” NetEase said Wednesday in a statement on Chinese social media platform Weibo, according to National Review.
“The speech hurt the feelings of Chinese fans and violated the sports spirit of love and peace,” it said. “We do not understand, accept or forgive this!”
Chinese fans are apparently pretty snowflakey if their hurt feelings necessitated unpersoning Ozil from an entire range of soccer games. Or perhaps it’s the Chinese government, which had one of its apparatchiks come out and say the midfielder was “deceived by fake news.”
Geng Shuang, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, said Ozil has been “influenced by untruthful remarks” regarding the roughly 1 million people, mostly Uighur Muslims, detained in Kafkaesque prison camps in the Xinjiang region without the benefit of a trial.
“I don’t know if Mr. Ozil has been to Xinjiang himself. But it seems he has been deceived by fake news, and that his judgment was influenced by untruthful remarks,” Geng said, according to the CBS News.
“If Mr. Ozil has the opportunity, we will be pleased to see him going to Xinjiang and having a look.”
Where I’m sure he’d get an unimpeded, non-curated look into the conditions Uighurs are kept in. One would expect no less transparency from a country that calls these ethnoreligious gulags “vocational re-education centers” and calls them necessary to fight violent extremism.
And it’s not just NetEase that’s unpersoning him, either. That’d be too simple. Chinese search engine Baidu removed his fan club, explaining, “In front of national interest, any individual hobby doesn’t matter any more.”
There are also the Chinese hypernationalists who buy whatever Ingsoc is selling them. According to The Guardian, some Chinese fans have taken to burning their Arsenal jerseys and ranting on social media about the stab in the back that Ozil gave them.
“Do you know how Arsenal fans in China have spent the last two days?” a former Arsenal fan posted on Instagram. “They are struggling to understand how the club and idol they once loved has turned out to be a rumormonger.
“Of course, if you intend to attack China, you are as insignificant in our hearts as dirty ants.”
Well, at least the ants aren’t in internment camps.
Much like NBA star LeBron James in the face of the NBA’s Hong Kong issues a few months back, Arsenal’s reaction was a case of studied pusillanimity; the club merely said it is “apolitical.”
That didn’t stop the jersey-burning, mind you, and it didn’t stop Arsenal’s most recent match from being blacked out in China, but at least we can tell that Arsenal doesn’t get involved in the politics of keeping millions of people in internment camps for the crime of practicing their religion. Its Muslim fans must be thrilled with that one. Hope it was worth it.
Arsenal wasn’t alone in its cowardice. Konami — the Japanese video game conglomerate that produces “Pro Evolution Soccer” and is otherwise known for franchises such as “Contra,” “Metal Gear Solid”and “Silent Hill” — declined to comment on the situation, according to PC Gamer.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, provided his support for Ozil:
China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets can censor @MesutOzil1088 and @Arsenal’s games all season long, but the truth will prevail. The CCP can’t hide its gross #HumanRights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths from the world.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) December 17, 2019
This isn’t dissimilar from the row over Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s support of the Hong Kong protesters, which saw swift condemnation from the Chinese government and an NBA that was initially unwilling to stand up to a country that provides it with a massive influx of revenue.
The league eventually did, mind you, but the weeks of vacillation as the NBA found the barest amount of political courage to tell Beijing that its employees had a right to their political opinions were both painful and telling.
However, Morey couldn’t be unpersoned. You can’t burn a general manager’s jersey. Although there were plenty of those aforementioned hypernationalists burning Houston Rockets jerseys in a predictably thought-free defense of mother China, the Rockets couldn’t be erased from video games. Some outlets stopped airing NBA games, but the NBA didn’t cease to exist.
At least for Mesut Ozil, the option to unperson him was open. While Ozil’s playing time has decreased this season — he was on the bad side of manager Unai Emery, who got the sack after the Gunners got off to a disastrous start — he’s still one of the most recognizable soccer players in the world. Yet, that’s how powerful state coercion can be, especially when it’s backed up by witless national chauvinism unguided by morality or logic.
It’s not uncommon for a Chinese citizen to be unpersoned when he or she steps out of line. We’ve gotten to the point where we almost expect it — if we hear about it at all, which is beyond rare.
When it happens to a German soccer star playing in England, that ought to frighten us all into the galling realization China is using its economic might to silence the world into accepting unconscionable behavior — and the ramifications of that go far beyond video games or professional sports.
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