Australian Open Stifles Support of Peng Shuai, Reverses Position After Public Outcry

Over the weekend, the Australian Open became mired in controversy over its decision to forbid spectators from displaying messages supporting Peng Shuai. Peng, the Chinese tennis star who accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a November 2 Weibo post, has been missing from the public spotlight, despite a few forced reappearances and a strange interview with a state-media reporter. Matt Walsh from ESPN described the incident that sparked the ban, in which two spectators wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan “Where is Peng Shuai?” were ejected from the venue:

On Saturday, a TikTok user uploaded a video in which fans at the Australian Open were approached by security and asked to remove the shirts with the slogan [“Where is Peng Shuai?”] on them. A banner was also seen in the hands of a member of security.

In the video, police later arrived at the scene and confirmed the security crew’s position. An officer is heard saying: “The Australian Open does have a rule that you can’t have political slogans … it’s a rule that it’s a condition of entry.”

[…] “Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” a spokesperson [for Tennis Australia] said. “Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her well-being.” [Source]

News of the ban spread across social media and incited widespread criticism of Tennis Australia, the body that oversees the Australian Open. Those speaking out ranged from major tennis stars to government officials. Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton stated that Peng’s safety “is not a political issue” but “a human rights issue,” and Foreign Minister Marise Payne added that she respected Peng’s “strength in making those disclosures” about her sexual assault. Tennis Head reported on the blistering critique by 18-time grand slam singles champion Martina Navratilova, who called the Australian Open’s decision “pathetic”:

She then spoke on the Tennis Channel to discuss the matter further. Navratilova said “sport has always been on the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and we are going backwards I feel … I find it really, really cowardly.

“This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement. And chances are Peng Shuai may be playing here but, she couldn’t get out of the country? Anyway, I think they’re wrong on this.

“The WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] has been so strong on this issue … and the players, really taking a chance on their pocket book. The ATP [Association of Tennis Professionals] was pretty weak on this. The IOC [International Olympic Committee], well we know where they are.

“And just really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies, letting China dictate what they do at their own slam. For their own player, a player who has played there before. I just find this really weak.” [Source]

The Australian Open’s lucrative agreements with various Chinese corporate sponsors could be one motivating factor for its incursions on free speech. One partnership, with Chinese liquor manufacturer Luzhou Laojiao, is reportedly worth approximately 53 million dollars. Tennis Australia has been more restrained in its public comments on Peng Shuai than other groups such as the Women’s Tennis Association, which decided to cancel all of its future events in China. As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, Tennis Australia “can scarcely afford to lose a massive financial backer after a difficult year with COVID,” during which it lost 100 million Australian dollars and took out a 40-million-dollar loan from the government. Ben Church and Angus Watson from CNN described Tennis Australia’s enthusiasm for one of its major Chinese sponsors:

One of the Australian Open’s three “associate partners” is liquor company Luzhou Laojiao, which organizers said was the largest Chinese sponsorship deal in the history of the tournament when the sponsorship deal was announced in 2018.

“We are delighted to welcome Luzhou Laojiao to the Australian Open partner family, a significant event in the history of our organisation,” Tennis Australia’s Chief Revenue Officer Richard Heaselgrave.

“We’ve made no secret that China and the region are a major priority for the Australian Open, and that we take our role as the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific seriously.” [Source]

Under mounting international pressure, the tournament organizers ultimately reversed their position. Cindy Boren and Des Bieler from the Washington Post described how Tennis Australia changed its stance and attempted to clarify what constitutes an infraction

On Tuesday, Tennis Australia chief executive Craig Tiley clarified that a pro-Peng banner displayed by fans was specifically at issue.

“We’ve said that if anyone comes on-site with an intent to disrupt and use the Australian Open as a platform for themselves and really disrupts the comfort and the safety of our fans, then they’re not welcome,” Tiley told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“However, if someone wants to wear a T-shirt and make a statement about Peng Shuai, that’s fine.

“But what’s not fine,” he continued, “[is] if that someone brings in a big banner, and it’s got big poles attached to it and it’s used as something [which is dangerous], it really takes away from the comfort and safety of the fans.” [Source]

More T-shirts are expected at upcoming tournament matches. A fundraising campaign to print and distribute one thousand T-shirts bearing the slogan “Where is Peng Shuai?” to fans at the women’s final this weekend has raised over 20 thousand Australian dollars, twice its original goal, much of which was raised in the days after the initial T-shirt banning incident took place. 

Many athletes at the Australian Open have voiced concern over Peng Shuai’s current situation. Tennis Threads reported on recent statements by Ash Barty, Garbiñe Muguruza, Naomi Osaka, Alize Cornet, and others who called for more information on Peng’s whereabouts and well-being. Osaka stated, “I feel like if I was in her position, I would want people to care for me too,” adding, “I imagine myself in her shoes, and in that way, it’s a little bit scary.” 

Peng Shuai is not the only #MeToo figure who has faced retaliation by the Chinese authorities. News emerged this week that activist and independent journalist Huang Xueqin has been transferred from residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL) to an official detention center in Guangzhou, after authorities “forcefully disappeared” her in September of last year. During her detention, Huang has been prevented from being represented or visited by lawyers, and she has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” The charge against Huang was likely motivated by her extensive work documenting sexual harassment against women in the workplace and in educational institutions. Also confined to a Guangzhou detention facility is labor- and disability-rights activist Wang Jianbing, who was detained with Huang in September and now faces the same charge. 



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