• Chinese football team cancels matches in Germany after Tibet flag displayed
  • Hostile response in Chinese media indicates unilateral decision after German FA defends freedom of speech

A round of friendly matches in Germany with China’s Under 20 national team was cancelled last Friday after a group of protesters unfurled Tibetan flags at a game last week in Mainz, causing the Chinese team to walk off the pitch.

In a response to the outrage from the Chinese side, Reinhard Grindel, president of the German Football Association, defended the right to free expression and said: “It has been made clear to the Chinese federation that when you play in Germany you also have to deal with the fact that anyone can express their opinion.”

While the German and the Chinese Football Associations issued a statement that they would postpone the project for ‘re-assessment’, an opinion article in China’s state media, the People’s Daily, made it clear that the decision was to cancel, not only ‘suspend’ the football matches, and that this had been made unilaterally. Raising a comparison that is particularly sensitive in Germany, the Chinese state media article posed the question: “May I ask, does Germany allow for freedom of speech in support of Nazis?” (People’s Daily Online, November 27, 2017).[1] The article also stated that the head of the German side “should be ashamed.”

Kai Mueller, Executive Director of the International Campaign for Tibet Germany, said: “This is an extreme and inflammatory response from the Chinese side to a principled and reasonable assertion by the German Football Association upholding freedom of speech and expression. To peacefully display a Tibetan flag is not only protected in German law, but also in international law. To compare it to support for Nazism is utterly unacceptable.”

“This aggressive and politicized response demonstrates the dangers of cooperation projects with China by sports bodies, academics, and other institutions. Stakeholders in the West need to be aware that in dealing with China, there is no level playing field, no transparency and the constant risk of contravening international standards.”

[1] ‘Sports venues shouldn’t be political battlefields’, People’s Daily, http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/1127/c90000-9297344.html, which refers to an original Chinese language article, http://tj.people.com.cn/n2/2017/1127/c375366-30965313.html (online paper version at http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2017-11/27/nw.D110000renmrb_20171127_2-03.htm), is bylined Curtis Stone, whose Twitter account @shifeiran describes him as an editor and columnist at People’s Daily. The Chinese state media hires a number of Westerners partially in an effort to lend credibility to propaganda.