The Australian Open banned t-shirts about the missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, but then u-turned. What does it tell us about how sporting bodies deal with repressive regimes?
claudia williams, narrating:
Hello I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker.
One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.
Today, the sporting body caught up in a row about t-shirts.
Last weekend, fans at the Australian Open in Melbourne were banned from wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “Where is Peng Shuai?”
“And security and police moved in, the banner was disposed of and the T-shirt had to be removed…”Sky News Australia
It caused a huge backlash with former tennis champion Martina Navratilova accusing the Australian Open of being “cowardly”.
The outrage was sparked when a video was posted on TikTok.
“So you’d like her to take the shirt off? Can you just show us the shirt? What do you suggest she wears?Footage from video posted on Drew Pavlou’s TikTok
It shows a security official speaking to a barred fan.
“The Australian Open does have a rule that there can’t be any political slogans so I’m sorry, that is a rule… I understand what you’re saying however tennis Australia does set the rules.”Footage from video posted on Drew Pavlou’s TikTok
The video was posted by Drew Pavlou.
He’s a human rights activist who recently set up his own political party, the “Drew Pavlou Democratic Alliance.” He’s best known for his criticism of the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party.
In fact, in May 2020 Drew Pavlou was suspended from his university for two years for organising on-campus protests in support of democracy in Hong Kong.
“It’s not political, it’s not election material, it’s not like it’s a banner saying you know, all praise is due to the great father Mark McGowan of western Australia…”Drew Pavlou speaking on Sky News Australia
And since his video went viral, Drew Pavlou has been determined to make life a little more difficult for the tournament’s organisers Tennis Australia, by setting up a GoFundMe page to raise money.
More “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts of course.
And so, on Wednesday, buckling under the pressure, Tennis Australia u-turned on their decision.
“Tournament director Craig Tiley had no choice but to roll over the greatest backflip of the summer. He released a statement saying the T-shirts would be permitted as long as they are not coming as a mob to be disruptive but are peaceful.”Sky News Australia
Director Craig Tiley announced fans were now free to wear T-shirts in support of China’s missing tennis player: Peng Shuai.
So, how do the world’s sporting bodies deal with repressive regimes like China?
To understand why spectators were wearing these T-shirts in the first place, we need to go back to the 2nd November last year.
“Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai wrote a really emotional post on her Weibo account about a love affair with a former top Chinese Communist Party leader, and said he sexually assaulted her.”Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, Tortoise
Poppy Sebag-Montefiore is Tortoise’s China expert who investigated Peng Shuai’s disappearance for our Slow Newcast.
“Around 20 minutes later, her post was erased by China’s internet censors, along with all mention of her. And then she disappeared.”Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, Tortoise
Now, it’s fair to say that if a British or American tennis champion alleged sexual abuse by such a senior politician, it would be a big story.
But in China, things work differently.
“Firstly Peng Shuai has broken a fundamental taboo – in China – you’re not allowed to publicly criticise a top Chinese leader. And secondly, China’s authorities have a very ambivalent relationship with the metoo movement. They have detained and censored activists campaigning on issues of sexual harassment.
About two weeks after Peng Shuai vanished, tennis stars around the world started to ask where she was. The International Olympic Committee set up a virtual meeting with her to check she was okay in advance of the Beijing Winter Games but then the Women’s Tennis Association spoke out and said that they felt her appearance was orchestrated, and they had not been able to reach her.
Then Peng Shuai appeared again and this time told a Singapore journalist that there had been a misunderstanding, and that she hadn’t said anything about sexual assault.
Now she’s made that retraction – it’s unclear whether we’re going to hear from Peng Shuai again.”Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, Tortoise
And so in all of this, you would think Tennis Australia would fully support calls to find a missing tennis player. Especially one that has competed at the Australian Open.
But here’s the catch.
This year’s main sponsor of the Australian Open is a company called Luzhou Laojiao.
They’re a Chinese owned distillery who signed a five-year deal in 2018, reported to be worth $100 million (AUD). One of the stadiums at Melbourne Park is now even called 1573 after one of the distillery’s signature products.
“It’s sickening that the Australian Open would put its Chinese corporate sponsorship before the life of Peng Shuai.”Drew Pavlou speaking on Sky News Australia
The Australian Open frames itself as the grand slam tournament of the Asia-Pacific region. It works with several Chinese partners, and every year, the tournament takes around $25 million (AUD) in Chinese sponsorship.
So you can see why Tennis Australia felt uneasy about the T-shirts. But wasn’t this just giving in to Chinese money and power?
Tennis Australia isn’t the only sporting body to tie itself in knots because of Chinese influence.
In 2019, the general manager of basketball team Houston Rockets was forced to apologise after he tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters, saying he did not intend to offend fans of the NBA team in China.
“The NBA makes billions of dollars in the Chinese market and is apparently siding with Beijing, calling Daryl Morey’s tweet regrettable…”CNN
Both the Rockets and the National Basketball Association quickly distanced themselves from the tweet.
Tennis Australia took a different approach. It reversed its decision to ban the “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts, so it’s likely we’ll see a lot more of them at the Australian Open in the coming days.
Drew Pavlou’s GoFundMe page has currently raised more than $20,000 (AUD), enough to buy thousands of them.
He plans to hand them out to spectators ahead of the womens’ singles final in Melbourne on Saturday.
His hope is that somewhere, Peng Shuai, the Australian Open’s former champion, will see that Tennis Australia, and the world, aren’t just looking the other way.
Today’s episode was written and produced by Imy Harper.
China’s missing tennis player
In November, athlete Peng Shuai accused a senior Chinese politician of sexual assault. Then, she vanished. Poppy Sebag-Montefiore investigates her disappearance – and the silencing of China’s #MeToo movement