Navratilova hits Australian Open for 'capitulation' after Peng Shuai T-shirts banned

Calls are growing for a government investigation into the banning of the T-shirts, and any involvement by Beijing.
By Yitong Wu and Chingman
2022.01.24
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Navratilova hits  Australian Open for 'capitulation' after Peng Shuai T-shirts banned A T-shirt designed by Australia-based artist Niu Guoqing, and now banned for display at the Australian Open, is shown in an undated photo.
Twitter photo

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has hit out at the organizers of the Australian Open for "capitulating" to Beijing, after they banned fans from wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Where is Peng Shuai?" during the competition.

Tennis Australia security officials and police ordered fans at a match on Saturday to remove the shirts supporting the Chinese former world doubles No. 1 who has been largely incommunicado after accusing a former vice premier of sexual assault.

The organization said it doesn't allow "political statements" at the event.

"I find it really, really cowardly," Navratilova, a 18-times Grand Slam winner, told 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.

"[They are] just really capitulating on this issue ... letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak," she said.

Meanwhile, French player Nicolas Mahut suggested via his Twitter account that the move was linked to the Australian Open's Chinese sponsors: "What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors."

Baijiu distillery Luzhu Laojiao and Chinese mattress company De Rucci are among the event's sponsors.

Tennis Australia said Peng's safety was its "primary concern."

"We continue to work with the [Women's Tennis Association] WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure [Peng's well-being," a spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters on Monday.

"Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels," they said.

The organization said it would continue to enforce the ban on T-shirts supporting Peng Shuai.

The uncertain fate of Peng, who disappeared from the public eye after posting allegations of sexual abuse against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, only to re-emerge in carefully controlled photos, videos and pro-CCP media interviews, led the WTA to suspend all tournaments on Chinese soil.

China didn't mention Peng Shuai directly when asked about the T-shirt incident on Monday.

"China has always opposed the politicization of sports. Such behavior is unpopular and will not succeed," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular news briefing in Beijing.

Pressure from Beijing

Australia-based activist Wu Lebao called on the Australian government to investigate whether the T-shirt ban had been the result of pressure from Beijing.

"For someone to be barred from entering a venue in Melbourne because they are wearing a T-shirt supporting Peng Shuai is a serious violation of Australians' right to freedom of expression," Wu told RFA. "To what extent were the organizers influenced by Chinese sponsors ... and was there any kind of maneuvering by the CCP regime in the background?"

"We need to get to the bottom of this, and the government and intelligence services should take it very seriously," he said.

Former city councilor Hu Yuming said censoring concern for Peng Shuai is a form of global censorship.

"The Australian Open is doing this out of political considerations ... and selling its soul for financial interests," Hu told RFA. "What are the people with the power to make these decisions doing behind the scenes?"

"The dictatorship of the CCP has started extending itself to a lot of democracies, to every part of life, and it's an abuse of power," he said.

Liberal Senator James Paterson, chairman of the Australian Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, told The Australian newspaper that the decision was definitely deserving of further scrutiny, and shouldn't be accepted uncritically.

Call for diplomatic boycott

Meanwhile, calls are growing for a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics on the basis of China's mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, as well as human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet and the rest of China, and the CCP's ongoing military threats against the democratic island of Taiwan.

Forum 2000, the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal founded by former Czech leader Vaclav Havel, called on democratic governments and international institutions not to send official political representation to the 2022 Winter Olympics and to diplomatically boycott the Games.

"Abuses are being committed daily against the Uyghurs, the people of Hong Kong, Tibet and countless other Chinese citizens, whose freedom and dignity are being attacked by the CCP government," the group said in an open letter published on its website.

"In Xinjiang, [where] at least two million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are involuntarily detained in so-called 're-education camps,' there is evidence that Uyghurs are used as forced labor and women are forcibly sterilized," it said.

"Further concerns have been raised over the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai from the public view in November 2021."

It said a number of Chinese lawyers, journalists and activists are also behind bars, with citizens subjected to "excessive surveillance through sophisticated technology."

"In addition, China is also intensifying military threats and intimidation against Taiwan," the letter, signed by Russian chess champion Garry Kasparov, Germany-based writer Liao Yiwu and World Uyghur Congress leader Dolkun Isa, among others.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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