It took 42 seconds for Zhang Weili to make history as the first Chinese UFC champion — a victory that has since caused the promotion to try and maximize its profits from China.
Ever since Weili’s historic win took place at a UFC Fight Night show in Shenzhen in August 2019, where she defeated Brazil’s Jessica Andrade to claim the UFC strawweight title, the UFC has reportedly sought to parlay the surge of interest in the promotion into a new TV deal in China. According to the New York Post, the UFC is currently negotiating a new media rights deal in China years before the current one expires in the hopes of extracting more profits.
The UFC’s ongoing deal with China, which began in 2016, gave China the right to broadcast UFC fights for five years for a total of roughly $50 million. Now the UFC is reportedly attempting to negotiate a new fee of $100 million over five years, which is double the revenue they currently receive.
While it remains unclear whether the UFC will achieve such a significant boost in profits, its decision to renegotiate its deal and seek out new investment options emphasizes the promotion’s interest in courting China, where demand for American sports is rapidly becoming more profitable. However, the promotion’s decision to seek out new deals with China raises concerns about China’s harrowing human rights abuses and its recent conflict with the NBA.
China’s Concentration Camps
In August 2018, reports emerged that China had detained more than a million ethnic Uighur in Xinjiang in a crackdown aimed at combating religious extremism. The United Nation human rights panel expressed alarm over the reports, which included credible claims that the Chinese government was forcing the Uighur, as well as other Muslim minority groups such as Uzbeks or Kazakhs, to undergo psychological re-education and indoctrination programs while being held in camps and detention centres. They have also reportedly been subjected to torture in various forms.
The Uighur are Turkic-speaking Muslims from the Central Asian region. Approximately 10 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, a region in China’s northwest that was annexed by the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Uighur speak an Asian Turkic language similar to Uzbek and practice Sunni Islam. When first annexed, the Uighur made up around 76% of the Xinjiang’s population, while Han Chinese — the country’s majority ethnic group — made up around 6% of the region. Following Han migration encouraged by the Chinese government, the Uighur now equate to only 42% of the region’s population.
Since being annexed, the Uighur and other minorities within Xinjiang have undergone repeated crackdowns from the Chinese government, which created civil and ethnic unrest in the region. China’s renewed crackdown on the Uighur and other ethnic Muslim groups is the government’s latest attempt to peel away their rights and religious freedoms. The Chinese government first denied the existence of detention camps when confronted by the United Nation in August but have since reframed them as legal re-education camps designed to eradicate extremism.
In October 2019, Mihrigul Tursun, a former Uighur detainee in one of the concentration camps, went before Congress to describe the atrocities she endured. Through her translator, Tursun recounted electric shock treatment and a liquid forcibly injected that stopped her menstrual cycle and likely resulted in her sterilization. Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh who was made to work in one of the camps in Xinjiang brought forward allegations of rape and other sexual abuse in an interview with Haaretz. She also revealed incidents of gang rape, including a case where other inmates were forced to watch.
Despite the harrowing reports emerging from the camps, Muslim leaders around the world have taken minimal action against China’s repression, preferring not to condemn the camps and seemingly violent assimilation process. In a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2019, ambassadors from countries around the world, including ones with Muslim-majority population like Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Pakistan and Sudan, praised China’s “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” That same month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China and was quoted by Chinese media saying that all the people in Xinjiang were ‘living happily.’
While China’s horrific camps — now accepted as concentration camps — should constitute sufficient reason to limit any given organization’s relationship with China, it is not the only recent example of authoritarianism being attributed to the Chinese government.
A Penchant for Sports Propaganda
In October 2019, Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. While the tweet was almost immediately deleted, it caused a chain reaction of Chinese businesses pulling their support for the National Basketball Association (NBA).
NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued several statements clarifying the league’s position on Morey’s tweet, revealing that while he acknowledges the different political systems in the US and China, he has no intention to regulate an NBA employee’s speech.
“It is inevitable that people around the world — including from America and China —will have different viewpoints over different issues,” Silver said in his statement. “It is not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.”
However, the response failed to appease China’s leading figures. China’s state-run broadcast network CCTV suspended preseason NBA broadcasts in the country and that it will “investigate all cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.” Tickets for the Nets-Lakers preseason game were no longer available online, several sponsors pulled their support for the NBA, and Chinese celebrities began to boycott the NBA games in China.
The NBA even faced condemnation on home soil, as a bipartisan group of United States lawmakers including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ted Cruz signed a letter accusing the NBA for not defending Morey more emphatically. The letter also criticized the league for caving to “Chinese government demands for contrition” and acknowledged the lucrative business deals and partnerships that the league has entered into with the repressive regime.
”We are deeply concerned that individuals associated with the league may now engage in self-censorship that is inconsistent with American and the league’s stated values,” the letter reads.
The entire NBA fiasco in China sheds light on how the Chinese government handles dissent and criticism of its policies. It also emphasized the lengths China is willing to go to to maintain its propaganda. In this case, China used its financial sway over the NBA to limit the league’s potential position as a platform for a democratic statement on the Hong Kong protests.
Hong Kong’s anti-government protests began in June 2019 as a response to a government proposal to allow extradition back to mainland China. Those who opposed the proposal claimed it would undercut judicial independence and limit dissent. While leader Carrie Lam suspended the extradition bill before withdrawing it in September, protestors expanded their demands to include more democratic rights and official inquiries into police brutality. Since then, the protests have become more violent as clashes increased between protestors and police officers.
China has operated a “one country, two systems” approach with Hong Kong since it stopped being a British colony and returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Hong Kong has more autonomy than mainland China and a separate legal system that includes freedom of speech and right to assembly. Yet despite these differences from mainland China, the Chinese government continued to push back against the pro-democracy movement by designating the protestors as “riot fighters” and have been “radicalized to perpetrate criminal acts.” This increased criticism emphasizes the Chinese government’s distaste for dissension.
The skirmish between the NBA and the Chinese government is a reflection of the conflicting values of US-based organizations, which are trapped between their country’s perpetuation of freedom and democracy as core American values, and their financial imperative of maximizing profits. The UFC will likely face a similar situation, though the cage-fighting promotion has never been one to shy away from maximizing its bottom line.
In the wake of the NBA controversy in China, the UFC sent out a press release announcing the launch of an “Asia edition” of the Dana White Contender Series program which showcases up-and-coming talent in professional bouts. The inaugural season will be filmed in the brand new UFC Performance Institute in Shanghai. The 93,000 square foot facility, which is approximately three times larger than the original iteration in Las Vegas, will act as the UFC’s headquarters in Asia.
“There’s no area in the world right now with more potential MMA talent than Asia,” said UFC President Dana White. “We’re going to use Dana White’s Contender Series to find these fighters, develop them, and give them the opportunity to perform on the biggest stage in combat sports.”
By following in the footsteps of numerous international sports organizations that have invested in the lucrative Chinese market, the UFC is adding its name to the list of entities that will potentially use their platforms to sportwash China’s harrowing human rights atrocities.