China has raised an official fuss over a friendly football match in Germany where activists waved Tibetan flags on the sidelines as a Chinese team played.
Soon after the Tibetan flags were unfurled, all of the members of the Chinese under-20 team walked off the field in the 25th minute of the match in the German city of Mainz, refusing to return to the pitch until the flags were put away.
Following a half-hour delay, the activists agreed to put down the Tibetan flags and the match resumed. The Chinese team had been invited to compete in the German fourth-division league as part of its preparations for qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games. The exhibition match was their debut.
On Monday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang defended the team’s decision to storm off the field during the match, stating that China resolutely opposes any form of “Tibetan separatist” activity, and calling on Germany to ensure “mutual respect” for its Chinese guests.
“I have to stress that respect is what the host should pay for their guests and respect is mutual in any country,” Lu said. “Tibet-related issues concern the core interests of China and the feeling of the Chinese people.”
Meanwhile, Ronny Zimmerman, vice president of the German Football Association, shot back that guests must also respect a host’s rules and freedoms.
“We cannot ban the protests, there is the right to freedom of expression here and certain rules apply,” Zimmerman explained. “As a guest, you should be able to handle it calmly and stand above such actions.”
This argument did not sit well with party tabloid the Global Times which quotes a Chinese professor saying that “separatist moves should not be protected by freedom of speech and the Chinese should take a zero-tolerance attitude toward such moves.”
For their part, the activists from the Tibet-Initiative Germany said that they had unfurled the flags to draw attention to the “unlawful and violent occupation of Tibet and the suppression of fundamental human rights.”
“We didn’t do this to interrupt the game,” 30-year-old Tenzin Thabye Nanglo told reporters at the game. “We just unfurled our flag to show the TV channels in China that we still exist, that we haven’t given up. In China we have no freedom of speech. Here, a Chinese man came to me and wanted to take my flag away, but I’m not here to pick a fight. It was a peaceful act.”
Back in February, the Tibetan Women’s Soccer team, a team made up of girls living in India or Nepal who arrived as refugees after they or their parents fled across the border from Tibet, were denied visas to the United States after being invited to play in an international football tournament in Dallas with American embassy officials stating that the team “had no strong reason to travel to the USA.”
Angered by this decision, Adri Hamael, the founder of the Vancouver International Soccer Festival, instead invited the girls to come play in his tournament in June. An invitation that the team gleefully accepted.