New Toronto Wolfpack star Sonny Bill Williams risks China retaliation with Uyghur Muslim support

New Toronto Wolfpack star Sonny Bill Williams risks China retaliation with Uyghur Muslim support
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Toronto Wolfpack rugby star Sonny Bill Williams on Sunday became the latest athlete to speak out against China, in a tweet voicing his support for the persecuted Uyghur ethnic group.

The move risks drawing the wrath of the communist state, which has retaliated firmly against NBA and English Premier League soccer teams whose staff or players have criticized Chinese policy.

Williams tweeted a photo of a hand, with the colours and stars of the Chinese flag on it, gripping another hand. The second hand was bleeding, and was detailed with the crescent and star of the Uyghur homeland of East Turkestan. Along with the photo, Williams tweeted the words: “It’s a sad time when we choose economic benefits over humanity.”

The tweet follows an intervention on the same topic from Arsenal soccer star Mezut Ozil, who in recent days published a statement in Turkish about the persecution of the group, and drew instant backlash from China. Ozil’s club, Arsenal, has been criticized for putting its economic interests ahead of its player by distancing itself from his words.

“They burn their Qurans,” wrote Ozil, according to a translation published by the Guardian. “They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men. The women are forced to marry Chinese men.”

Leaked Chinese documents revealed in November that millions of Muslim Uyghurs have been placed into re-education camps in Xinjang, China over the past three years. The camps are reportedly designed to strip the detainees of their identities and religion, and transform them into Chinese citizens who speak Mandarin.

In an emailed statement on Williams’ move, a Wolfpack spokesperson said the team does not take political stances.

“While the Toronto Wolfpack will never take a stance on political issues, our players will always have a right to freedom of speech,” the spokesperson wrote.

According to TSN , Williams joined the Wolfpack after signing a two-year contract worth $9 million in November. The deal he signed is believed to be the most lucrative ever for a rugby player.

A devout Muslim who has been outspoken about his beliefs in the past, Williams’ support of the Uyghurs should come as no surprise to those who have followed his career.

The 34-year-old from New Zealand grew up Christian but converted to Islam in 2008, according to the New Zealand Herald . He often speaks publicly about his beliefs and was vocal in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attack in which 51 Muslims where murdered by an Australian man. His religious views have also seen him taping over a Bank of New Zealand logo on a New Zealand All Blacks jersey, because of Islam’s stance against “usury” — the charging of fees and interest on loans. While promoting a boxing fight, he once refused to pose with “ring girls” wearing bikinis.

It’s unclear yet whether China will retaliate against Williams, the Wolfpack or the Betfred Super League. Rugby is still a relatively new sport in China and has not developed the same following or created the same links with sponsors that the English Premier League and the NBA have with the communist state. Williams may, however, be in danger of facing retaliation that affects his personal sponsors. The Wolfpack player has a multi-million dollar sponsorship deal as a global ambassador with Adidas, which has a massive presence in China.

New Zealand’s centre Sonny Bill Williams scores All Blacks third try during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool B match between New Zealand and Canada at the Oita Stadium in Oita on October 2, 2019. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

China immediately cancelled a planned broadcast of a game between Arsenal and Manchester City after Ozil’s comments, and accused the player of being “deceived by fake news.” A Chinese ministry spokesperson also invited Ozil to “come have a look.”

Following the state reaction, Chinese video game developer NetEase announced that it would be removing Ozil from its Pro Evolution Soccer game.

Arsenal themselves also quickly moved to separate the club from Ozil’s comments, publishing a statement that made it clear the views were “Ozil’s personal opinion” and that the organization “has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”

Arsenal has strong links to the communist country, and has even opened team-themed restaurants there to cater to the millions of supporters the club boasts there.

The English Premier League itself is also strongly linked to China. Streaming site PPTV paid US$700 million for rights to the games in 2016; Chinese companies appear as the main sponsors on the jerseys of teams such as Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and Southhampton; and conglomerate Fosun International has an ownership stake in Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Earlier this year, the NBA was also dragged into Chinese politics after Houston Rockets general manager Darryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong, which has been roiled by pro-democracy protests in recent months. The NBA is the most popular league in China and the Rockets have easily been the top draw there since they drafted Chinese star Yao Ming in 2002. As the result of just one tweet, however, China cancelled the broadcasting of Rockets preseason games, and its businesses have threatened to pull the plug on a relationship that is conservatively thought to be worth $500 million per year to the NBA.

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