Australian Open organisers have sparked outrage after they ordered tennis fans to remove their ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ t-shirts.
Video emerged on Sunday of security staff ordering spectators to remove shirts and a banner in support of the Chinese player at Melbourne Park.
Tennis players have criticised the move, with French star Nicolas Mahut accusing the organisers of bowing to corporate sponsorship from China after it emerged that Tennis Australia has a lucrative £53million ($100million) sponsorship deal with a Chinese liquor company.
Peng, former doubles world number one, is absent from the Grand Slam and there are fears for her wellbeing after she alleged online in November that she had been ‘forced’ into sex by Chinese former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli during a years-long on-and-off relationship.
Her allegation was quickly censored and the 36-year-old was not heard from for nearly three weeks, before reappearing in public in China. But there are still concerns as to whether she is really free.
Last month she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that a social media post she had made had been misunderstood.
An Australian Open fan has been forced to remove a shirt expressing welfare concerns for tennis star Peng Shuai who disappeared after accusing a senior Chinese politician of rape
Peng Shuai (pictured in 2020), former doubles world number one, is absent from the Grand Slam and there are fears for her wellbeing after she alleged online in November that she had been ‘forced’ into sex by Chinese former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli during a years-long on-and-off relationship
On Sunday, footage emerged of security guards and police demanding spectators remove their ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ T-shirts at the grand slam over the weekend.
One man, who filmed a security asking a woman to remove the shirt, can be heard asking the guard ‘what do you suggest she wear?’
Instead of answering the question, the guard asks the man to also remove a similar shirt.
A police officer then approaches and informs the pair that guests aren’t allowed to take ‘political slogans’ into the tennis tournament.
‘This isn’t a political message,’ the male activist responds.
‘This isn’t saying vote for the Liberal or Labour party. This is a female tennis player who is being persecuted and the Women’s Tennis Association has spoken out for her. We are simply [reiterating] what the WTA is saying.’
The police said he understood what the pair were saying, but ‘Tennis Australia sets the rules’.
‘I’m not saying you are not allowed to have those views, but TA is allowed to confiscate your shirts and the banner,’ the police officers said, before the video cuts out.
Tennis stars have slammed the decision to prevent fans from wearing their ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ t-shirts as ‘pathetic’, but organisers refused to back down from their stance.
‘That’s just pathetic. The WTA stands pretty much alone on this,’ tennis legend and 18-time Grand Slam winner Martina Navratilova tweeted on Sunday on the t-shirt ban, using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai.
On Sunday, footage emerged of security guards and police demanding spectators remove their ‘Where is Peng Shuai’ T-shirts at the grand slam over the weekend
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China.
Navratilova accused Tennis Australia of giving into China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights, with Chinese distillery Luzhou Laojiao being one of the Australian Open’s leading sponsors.
‘I find it really, really cowardly,’ she said on the U.S.-based Tennis Channel. ‘I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.
‘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 player Nicolas Mahut, who was knocked out of the doubles in the first round at Melbourne, suggested on Twitter that organisers were bowing to corporate sponsorship from China.
‘What’s going on!? What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors,’ he wrote.
Chinese distillery Luzhu Laojiao and Chinese mattress company De Rucci are sponsors of the year’s first Grand Slam.
The deal with Luzhou Laojiao is one of the biggest in the tournament’s history, with the Open even renaming a Melbourne Park court 1573 Arena after one of Luzhou’s signature products.
French tennis player Nicolas Mahut – famous for playing in the longest ever tennis match at Wimbledon in 2010 – accused Australian Open organisers of ‘lacking courage’. The director of New York-based Human Rights Watch was also critical
Human Rights Watch also making the connection to the sponsorship deal.
‘Tennis Australia is preventing spectators at the Australian Open from wearing ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts,’ HRW director Kenneth Roth tweeted.
‘One of the Australian Open’s ‘major commercial partners is Chinese premium liquor brand Guojiao 1573′.’
The southern Chinese company took over advertising space from Victorian winemaking giant Jacob’s Creek – the tournament’s previous partner.
Luzhou Laojiao is known for its liquors made from Baijiu – a Chinese grain-based spirit dubbed ‘firewater’ for its sharp and powerful odour.
Tennis Australia, which organises the Australian Open, reiterated on Monday that ‘Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern’.
But it refused to budge on ‘not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political’ and that the longstanding policy ‘will continue to be applied in relation to any items that compromise the safety and comfort of AO fans’.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China
TA said security officials will continue to enforce its policy at Melbourne Park.
‘We understand and appreciate that people have strongly held personal and political views on a range of issues,’ a spokesperson added.
‘We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure her (Peng’s) well-being. Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels.
‘Today we have again reiterated our strong support to the WTA and we extend this to all the players.’
Leading players at the Australian Open have on several occasions said they still hope to hear directly from Peng so they can be assured of her safety.
A GoFundMe page set up to raise money to print more T-shirts reached its AUD$10,000 (£5,295) goal within two days, with activists pledging to make them available to whoever wants to wear them.
‘We’re printing 1,000 t-shirts and we can see how many match-goers that they can stop,’ activist Max Mok told broadcaster ABC.
Asked about the issue at its daily press conference, China’s Foreign Ministry said it ‘has always opposed the politisation of sports, which is unpopular and will not succeed’.
Fears have grown for Peng after she claimed last month she did not accuse China’s vice premier of sexual assault in her first interview since the allegation went public.
Tennis star Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, Former Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, of rape two weeks ago and has not been seen since
Speaking to Singaporean news outlet Lianhe Zaobao, Peng – who vanished for three weeks and had her social media censored following the claim – said: ‘I need to stress one point that is extremely important – I have never said or written that anyone has sexually assaulted me. I have to clearly stress this point.’
She said that her post on Weibo, which had been quickly removed, was a ‘private matter’.
Peng said in the video that ‘people have many misunderstandings’ about her post on Chinese social media site Weibo, which is monitored and regularly censored by China’s communist government. She did not elaborate.
She also said that she had been living at home in Beijing without supervision. She did not mention Zhang Gaoli, the man she accused of abusing her.
But the World Tennis Association – which was hailed for suspending women’s tennis games in China in the wake of Peng’s disappearance – said that it was convinced the star was still being censored and not being allowed to speak freely.
A spokesman said: ‘We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.’
Peng first made headlines on November 2 when she uploaded a lengthy post to her personal Weibo account – China’s version of Facebook – accusing Zhang of coercing her into sex during a years-long affair.
In the post, Peng revealed that she and Zhang – who is married – were involved in an on-off affair dating back to 2011 when the pair met in the port city of Tianjin, where Zhang was premier at the time.
The post details how Peng slept with Zhang once that year, and possibly a second time before he was promoted to the country’s powerful political bureau and cut all ties with her.
But he allegedly rekindled the affair in 2018 after his retirement from politics, inviting Peng for dinner with his wife after which he pressured her into sex.
Peng recalls ‘crying’ and refusing Zhang’s advances, before eventually relenting.
That kicked off a three-year affair, Peng alleged, which she described as ‘unpleasant’.
In the post, she admits to having ‘no evidence’ that the affair ever took place because Zhang insisted on keeping it a total secret.
Her post concluded: ‘You’ve said you are not afraid. But even as an egg hurled at a rock, a moth to a flame for self-destruction, I will speak the truth with you.’
Zhang was a vice-premier in Beijing and served on the ruling party’s powerful seven-member standing committee of the political bureau.
The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo within 20 minutes, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread despite the topic being blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.