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From Premier League to troubled Xinjiang for ex-City star Sun Jihai

Shanghai (AFP) – Manchester City’s former defender Sun Jihai is spearheading a drive to develop football in China’s troubled Xinjiang region — while also instilling loyalty to the ruling Communist Party. 

The 42-year-old, who also played for Crystal Palace and Sheffield United, has used his connections with City to model youth football in Xinjiang on the Premier League club’s academy, according to Chinese media.

Sun was last year appointed vice-chairman of the football association in Xinjiang, China’s far-western region where Muslim minorities have been held in camps as part of a wider crackdown.

A UN human rights panel has estimated one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic minorities have been held. 

China has faced severe US-led international criticism over its Xinjiang policies.

It defends the facilities as vocational training centres intended to offer an alternative to Islamic extremism in Xinjiang, which saw a series of violent incidents in years past that Beijing blames on “separatists”.

Sun was named the association’s vice-chair and director of youth training in Xinjiang in March 2019. His role also includes improving local coaches.

“We will build an integrated system of youth training in Xinjiang, including a local football academy, eight branch youth training centres and 100 football schools in future,” Sun, who won 80 caps for China, was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying.

Sun “used his connections and resources with Manchester City to transplant City’s youth training model into Xinjiang’s youth training work”, Xinmin Evening News said.

Sun made 130 appearances over six years at City from 2002-2008 and was the first Chinese player to score in the Premier League.

In 2015 he was controversially inducted into England’s National Football Museum Hall Of Fame — on the same day Chinese President Xi Jinping visited.

– ‘Glory for Xinjiang’ –

Xinjiang will have 115 new public football pitches by the end of this year, the People’s Daily said on Wednesday.

But football has not escaped the Beijing government’s campaign to ram home its authority in the restive region.

Xinjiang Snowland Future, a new youth-focused lower-league club of which Sun is a shareholder, posted pictures on social media this week of staff and coaches gathered at tables in an austere room.

With notepads at the ready they watched a seven-part propaganda documentary. A large Chinese flag was draped down the white-washed walls.

“As part of a series of patriotism activities, the club will continue to organise coaches and team members to watch the documentary and learn,” the club said on the Twitter-like Weibo.

“This is not only an opportunity for the minority coaches and players to learn patriotism.

“It will also inspire in the coaches and players love and patriotism of the party and country, inspire the team to work hard, win glory for Xinjiang and the motherland, and strive to realise the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”

Sun wants the team to “regularly” watch content extolling the Communist Party, the club said.

Sun, who was born in China’s northeast, did not respond to an AFP request for interview.

In 2018, midfielder Mirahmetjan Muzepper became the first Uighur to represent China’s national team — the milestone received little fanfare.

That same year the professional footballers’ union FIFPro said it was concerned for the safety of Erfan Hezim, also known as Ye Erfan, after reports that he had been detained.

The young striker, who has been pictured with Lionel Messi, resurfaced in February last year when he signed for second-tier Shaanxi Chang’an Athletic from Chinese Super League Jiangsu Suning.

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