Chinese Tennis Star Li Na's Cash Prize Sparks Controversy

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In this TV grab, Chinese tennis star Li Na (R), the winner of the 2014 Australian Open, poses with Wang Guosheng, Governor of Hubei province, as she is rewarded with 800,000 yuan at a welcome reception in Wuhan city, central China's Hubei province, Jan. 27, 2014.

A Chinese lawyer has called for transparency around the award by the Hubei provincial government of a large cash prize to tennis star Li Na, who won the Australian Open women's competition last Saturday.

Li Na was handed a check for around 800,000 yuan (U.S.$132,000) by Li Hongzhong, the ruling Chinese Communist Party secretary of her home province, after she beat Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (7-3) 6-0 in Saturday's final, her second Grand Slam win.

Some commentators are now asking why officials are giving away taxpayer's money to Li, who quit the Chinese state-run national team in 2008 to run her career independently.

Guangdong-based rights lawyer Pang Kun said he has already submitted a freedom of information request to the Hubei authorities for information about how the decision to give Li the prize was reached.

"There is taxpayers' money involved here, so we have a stake in this," Pang said. "The government says it is in line with prize money set by the National Sports Association, but I don't accept that."

"[Li] isn't a National Sports Association player; she's an independent athlete now," he said.

"If state money is to be paid out, it must be in accordance with the national budget law."

In 2008, Li challenged the entire party-backed machine that trains young Chinese to become top-performing athletes.

Li, whose feisty manner and rose tattoo has drawn much comment from China's gossip-ridden Internet, left the national sports system when she was denied permission to marry her coach, Jiang Shan.

Together with fellow tennis stars Peng Shuai, Zheng Jie, and Yan Zi, she negotiated a deal that won them the right to more of their own winnings, and the freedom to choose their coaches and their matches.

An official who answered the phone at the Hubei provincial sports bureau's propaganda office declined to comment on the controversy.

"Our leaders are all out of the office at a meeting," the official said. "If you leave your questions with me, they'll get back to you on their return."

However, no calls had been received at the time of publication.

Calls to the Hubei municipal government propaganda department rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.

'Unsmiling attitude'

In China's tightly controlled state media, Li was also slated for an "unsmiling attitude" at the Hubei award ceremony, in sharp contrast to her acceptance speech at the Australian Open, which was replete with smiles and jokes.

"Judging by her careless attitude to the reward, local government and officials should think about rewarding celebrities in future," the China Youth Daily wrote in an editorial.

"Please do not make decisions on taxpayers' behalf, and don't imagine that the recipients will automatically be happy to receive such rewards," it said.

Li, 31, has previously donated a cash prize awarded by the Hubei government in 2011 for her French Open win to charity, the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

"The controversy Li Na has caused in recent years mostly arose because she wanted to distance herself from the state sports system; she wants to represent herself only, not her country," the paper said in an editorial.

A coach at a Beijing high school surnamed Wang said she agreed that Li Na was independent of the state system now.

"She used to be a key player on the national team, before she...withdrew in anger, and had nothing more to do with the state sports system," Wang said.

"The success she has now is entirely the result of her huge personal effort and that of her [coach and] husband over all these years," she said.

Critics say China's sports development programs rely on an unending supply of promising children, who are handpicked by government talent scouts at an early age, and taken away from their families to a life of permanent training and discipline.

Those chosen give up a normal childhood for the sole aim of entering and winning competitions, while the system does little to encourage ordinary people to get fitter and healthier, they say.

Few have any say

Very few of China's top sports professionals have any say in which competitions they enter, nor can they negotiate their share of the winnings.

They are even restricted in their personal relationships, and pledge not to marry while still competing for China.

Li, by contrast, now boasts corporate endorsements worth more than U.S.$40 million.

According to the Global Times, an English-language tabloid with close ties to the Communist Party, Li's success could be seen as proof that the state-run sports system needs reform.

"Objectively speaking, Li's championship victory has shown that there are royal roads to success outside of the state system," the paper said.

"She has inspired more athletes to go in for professional sports careers. Even so, her triumph can't serve as a reason to call for China to abandon the state system right away," it added.

Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Yu for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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