Tennis Australia demanded that fans wearing T-shirts with the question “Where is Peng Shuai?” remove their shirts at the Australian Open over the weekend.
“They are asking our friend to take her shirt off,” an incredulous fan can be heard saying in a viral video showing the peaceful confrontation with security.
“The Australian Open does have a rule that you can’t have political slogans,” a security officer appears to say in the video. “They are allowed to confiscate your shirts and the banner.”
Peng Shuai’s story caused international concern when the world’s No. 1 doubles player suspiciously disappeared after taking to social media to accuse a senior Chinese Communist Party official of sexual assault. After criticism from the Women’s Tennis Association and other global voices, China sent the WTA an email supposedly from Peng insisting “everything is fine.”
Shortly afterward, Chinese state media released footage of Peng and had the CCP-friendly International Olympic Committee publish a still photo of what was supposedly a video conference with Peng. A month later, the tennis star denied ever making the allegations of sexual assault, raising more questions about her freedom to communicate to the world without CCP censorship. Her absence from the Australian Open only heightens fears for her freedom and safety.
A voice in the viral video can be heard arguing that Peng’s disappearance is not a political issue so much as a human rights one that directly applies to the Australian Open because of Peng’s status as a world-class tennis player. Tennis Australia, however, fell back on a “no political slogans” excuse for demanding the fans remove their shirts.
“Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” a spokesman told ESPN. “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.”
Czechoslovakian-American tennis champ Martina Navratilova joined in the criticism of Tennis Australia for its apparent kowtowing to the CCP.
“I find it really, really cowardly. I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement,” she said. “[Tennis Australia is] just really capitulating on this issue … letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak.”
French tennis star Nicolas Mahut also slammed Tennis Australia for the move and highlighted the sports group’s financial ties to China. “What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors,” he wrote.
In 2018, Chinese liquor company Luzhou Laojiao signed what Sporting News called “one of the biggest sponsorship deals in the Australian Open’s history,” becoming an associate sponsor of the Australian Open for the following five years. One of the courts was even named “Arena 1573” in honor of the year the distillery supposedly traces back to.
Sporting News also cited a report by The Australian, noting “the partnership with Luzhou Laojiao is the second phase of a long-term strategy Tennis Australia has in China, with the governing body aiming to double the broadcast hours beamed into China over the next two years.”