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Soccer star pulled from PES Mobile in China after criticizing government

The latest victim of China’s hurt feelings

Arsenal FC v Manchester City - Premier League
Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, in action Dec. 15 against Manchester City.
Photo by Robin Jones/Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

A footballer in the English Premier League has been removed from the mobile version of Pro Evolution Soccer 2020 in China, following a blowup over remarks he made criticizing the nation’s treatment of ethnic Muslims in its western provinces.

The South China Morning Post’s Abacus blog reported the removal of Mesut Özil, a midfielder for Arsenal, from three games published in China by NetEase, including PES 2020 Mobile. NetEase announced Özil’s removal on Weibo (a microblogging counterpart to Twitter), adding that the company does not “understand, accept, or forgive,” Özil’s conduct.

Özil, a German player of Turkish descent, took to social media last week to highlight China’s treatment of its Uighur minority. It’s a long-running international controversy that has taken on new life since China reported that those it calls “trainees” at a center of “reeducation camps” have “graduated.” In reality, China has detained more than 1 million Uighurs and other ethnic Muslims in concentration camps in the western region of the country.

Özil’s social media posts accused the Chinese government of burning Korans and closing down mosques, in addition to the detentions at the reeducation camps, according to Abacus. Özil also criticized fellow Muslims for either staying silent or not saying more about China’s treatment of the Uighurs. Beijing said Özil had been deceived by “fake news.” In August 2018, a United Nations human rights panel said it had received numerous credible reports about the detentions and the number of Uighurs taken by them.

Özil’s disappearance from a mobile game is the latest example of China’s willingness to silence or repudiate any outside criticism on complicated or controversial matters, ranging from the Uighurs’ treatment to demonstrations in Hong Kong. Sometimes, the Chinese government doesn’t even need to say anything for corporations doing business there to take fast action on their behalf.

In October, Blizzard Entertainment suspended not only a Hearthstone pro who used a broadcast to make statements in support of Hong Kong demonstrators, but also fired the two casters hosting the show. Blizzard president J. Allen Brack later apologized at BlizzCon 2019, saying “we moved too quickly in our decision.” But the company did not lift Blitzchung’s ban, which had been shortened to six months following a furious public response. (The two casters were given a six month ban, too.)

That same week, the NBA ran afoul of China’s hostility to all criticism when Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets (the most popular team in China), tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters as well. Almost immediately, the league — which has a considerable business presence in China — disavowed Morey’s remarks. So did Morey’s own boss.

A preseason game between Brooklyn and the Los Angeles Lakers was still held in Shanghai, but it wasn’t broadcast, and news conferences for players and league officials were also canceled in response. The Chinese Basketball Association, of which Rockets hall-of-famer Yao Ming is president, announced it would end all cooperation with the Houston team, too.

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