Officials at the Australian Open have come under fire after police and security officers forced spectators to remove T-shirts and a banner bearing the words “Where is Peng Shuai?” – citing rules that forbid political slogans at the tournament.
Australian human rights activist Drew Pavlou posted a video to Twitter on Friday showing Max Mok, a pro-democracy campaigner from Hong Kong, asking a member of Tennis Australia (TA) security why he and his fellow spectator were asked to remove their shirts and hand over their banner. In a second video, a police officer explains that the material is in breach of TA’s policy against political statements.
“I’m not saying you can’t have those views, but Tennis Australia sets the rules here,” the police officer says.
Peng Shuai, a 36-year-old Chinese pro tennis player, became the focus of international concern in late-2021 when she disappeared from public view after accusing a former Communist Party official of sexual assault. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai subsequently trended across social media, spurred on by a number of professional tennis players who sought to draw attention to the matter.
Tennis Australia’s crackdown on spectators doing the same has been broadly criticised by social media users, journalists and current and former tennis players – including tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who described it as “really, really cowardly.”
“This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement,” Navratilova said on the Tennis Channel. “I think they (TA) are wrong on this. Just really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies, letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own slam for their own player, the player that has been there before.”
“I just find it really weak.”
Tennis Australia has backed its decision to intervene, claiming the slogan was in breach of the Australian Open’s rules and guidelines, while at the same time insisting that Peng's safety is its “primary concern.”
“Under our ticket conditions of entry, we don't allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” it said in a statement to the media. “Peng Shuai's safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her wellbeing.”
Both the Women’s WTA and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) called for a full investigation into Peng’s allegations, which constitute China’s largest ever #MeToo case. But while Chinese state media and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claim to have spoken to Peng and confirmed her safety and well-being, and footage has emerged indicating the same, there are still concerns among human rights groups, supporters, and international observers as to whether she is completely free of harm or acting of her own free will.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement in December, announcing that the Association was suspending all of its tournaments in China in relation to the matter.
“While we now know where Peng is,” he said, “I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”
Belarusian tennis pro Victoria Azarenka, one of several tennis players to be asked about Peng during this year’s Australian Open tournament, told reporters “there hasn't been that much development in terms of contact with Peng Shuai even though, from our side, we will continue to make any and all efforts to make sure that she is safe.”
“Hopefully we will get to hear from her personally at some point,” said Azarenka. “I think that's the goal, the main goal right now.”
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