Sieren’s China: Beijing’s fight against ‘separatism’ in fourth-tier football

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Germany’s fourth-division TSV Schott Mainz has probably never received so much attention: At a home game against China’s Under 20 (U-20) team last Saturday there was a bit of a commotion when six of the 400 spectators in the stands unfurled Tibetan flags.

The Chinese players refused to carry on playing and left the pitch. One upset fan tried to grab a flag. An exiled Tibetan wept and dried her tears with the corner of the flag. The camera teams zoomed in. The game eventually resumed however.

Read more: Is here any substance to China’s football revolution?

Mainz-Mombach hits the headlines

The news spread from Mainz-Mombach to Britain and India. Then, the Chinese foreign ministry caught wind of the affair and issued a statement saying: “We are firmly opposed to any country or any individual offering support to separatist, anti-China and terrorist activities or activities defending Tibet independence, in any form or under any pretext.”

Frank Sieren

DW columnist Frank Sieren

This seems a bit extreme as a reaction. The only response can be to say that freedom of expression exists in Germany and Tibetan flags might be considered inappropriate in a stadium but they are not banned. Beijing could have said that it would be good if sport remained a politics-free space.

Schlappner plays diplomat

Beijing’s response was also a bit harsh considering that the flags soon disappeared and the game resumed. Legendary coach Klaus Schlappner, who once trained the Chinese team and is still famous in China today for being an eccentric figure, had a mitigating effect on the pro-Tibet activists even though diplomacy is not really one of his fortes.

Woman holding Tibetan flag in stadium (picture-alliance/Beautiful Sports/A. Kohring)

The Tibetan flags unfurled in the stadium overshadowed the match

Some of the members of the “Tibet-Initiative Deutschland” who had travelled from the southwestern German city of Stuttgart  to protest said that they had not expected such a strong reaction from the players. One 65-year-old, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Stuttgarter Zeitung daily that he would not participate in such actions in future. “I’m not in favor of pouring oil on the fire,” he said.

Beijing’s response intimidated him and did nothing to appease China’s critics. Instead, the foreign ministry’s statement brought more attention to the German Football Association’s (DFB) policy towards China, which has already drawn criticism.

German FA: putting commercial interests over human rights?

Even before the first whistle in Mainz-Mombach, critics had accused the DFB of exploiting amateur football players to gain access to broadcast rights in China. The clubs in the fourth-division Regional League Southwest that have agreed to play against the Chinese U-20 team will each receive 15,000 euros. This is a considerable amount of money for these clubs and only three out of 19 have refused.

Read more:Opinion: Why is the DFB prioritizing China over local clubs?

In the summer, some German football fans criticized the cooperation with the regime in China, saying that it did not respect human rights.

China U-20 players (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Bratic)

The Chinese players left the pitch as Tibetan flags were unfurled

With respect to the Tibetan flag incident, DFB vice-president Ronny Zimmermann said that he was not happy about it, but also cited freedom of expression. He suggested that the Chinese delegation be more relaxed if it happened again. This is easier said than done. The players simply made sure they did not offend Beijing by interrupting the game. They don’t want to have any problems when they get home. They just want to play football. Although now, this seems unlikely.

Next protest in Frankfurt?

The Chinese players face off against FSV Frankfurt on Saturday. The Chinese coach Sun Jihai is realistic and aware that there is no way of preventing people in Germany from waving the Tibetan flag: “If it happened in Mainz, it will also happen in Frankfurt.”

But now Beijing will be watching carefully. And thus the original idea behind these games might be forgotten. The young Chinese players are supposed to be trained up for the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. The score indicates that they badly need this. TSV Schott Mainz, which is almost at the bottom of the fourth league, beat the U-20 3-0. And now the whole world knows about it, too.

Columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years