JUST how much control should an employer have on its employees when it comes to their viewpoints, opinions or feelings? Mesut Özil spoke out on social media about the plight of Muslims in China and his employer, Arsenal, felt moved to distance themselves from his twitter posting. At the same time, Arsenal claimed they were apolitical.
Arsenal were, in effect, doing what most companies with business interests in China would have done if an employee had made a controversial comment. Worried that a sensitive tweet would compromise their own relationships with China, they made sure people knew that the message was purely Özil’s.
Right across the corporate spectrum, companies have long made it clear social media content may be an individual’s right, but they have sometimes used that content to discipline and even dismiss people – particularly if they are looking for an excuse to get rid of someone. It has happened in the financial sector, among others, and it has happened in football. Some firms even go as more as employing staff to monitor social media content.
Frances Eve of Chinese Human Right Defence, writing in The Guardian, said Özil should be applauded for speaking out about the plight of Uighurs in China and raising awareness of human rights abuses. The Chinese government said Özil had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”, but most would never have seen or heard of the message as it was censored, so they never knew their feelings had been hurt. Arsenal’s reponse, said Eve, was a cynical attempt to placate the government.
Simon Chadwick of University of Salford, told Deutsche Welle that China sets the rules for doing business in the country and foreign firms are expected to comply. If they backed Özil, they could have said goodbye to business in China.
Alfua Hirsch, also writing in The Guardian, said clubs like Arsenal do more damage to their image by reacting to controversy in this way than any player comment could ever do. Claiming that you are apolitical but putting clear blue water between a player’s comment and the club means you are indeed political.
Deutsche Welle reported that German clubs often call on fans to back political causes, especially anti-right events. St. Pauli even sacked Turkish striker Cenk Sahir for supporting Turkey’s attack on Kurdish territories in North Syria.
The South China Morning Post reported that US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has backed Özil. “China’s Communist Party outlets can sensor Mesut Özul and Arsenal’s games all season long, but the truth will prevail. The CCP can’t hide its gross human rights violations perpetrated against Uighurs and other religious faiths.”
Benedict Spence, in the Independent, said it was “only a matter of time before the cosy relationship between the Premier League and the Chinese state was tested.” Interestingly, while acknowledging that it was no surprise a Muslim footballer would eventually speak out about China, Spence also notes that players in their prime rarely comment due to the impact it might have on their career. It is no coincidence that those players known for making a political stand are generally at the back-end of their careers.
The response from China ranges from insistence that Özil has been blinded by “fake news” and that he has no right to make his views known. “Just because he’s a well-known sportsman, it doesn’t give him the right to comment on issues relating to the national interests and he needs to explain himself,” was the verdict from online sports platform Sina Sports.
Sources: Guardian, BBC, Independent, South China Morning Post, CNN, Deutsche Welle.