The Australia Open has been blasted over banning Peng Shuai T-shirts after it was revealed that Tennis Australia has a lucrative US $100 million sponsorship contract with a Chinese liquor company.
Last November, Peng Shuai, one of China’s top tennis players, accused former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into having sex in a social media post. The post was quickly censored.
Afterward, Peng Shuai did not show up in public for the following three weeks, raising widespread concern about her wellbeing and safety.
Although now she has shown up in social media posts several times, international concerns about her health continue.
Over the weekend, a video emerged showing security agents demanding a spectator take off a shirt with the printed words “Where is Peng Shuai?” on the back.
On Sunday, Jan. 23, Tennis Australia supported the shirt ban, saying that it “does not allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political” at the Grand Slam.
The ban was later reversed on Monday, Jan. 24, but the motive behind it attracted huge attention.
Sydney radio commentator Ben Fordham accused Australia Open of attempting to preserve their money, citing the Open’s five-year sponsorship deal with Chinese liquor brand Luzhou Laojiao.
The deal, signed in 2018, is one of the largest in the tournament’s history, with the Open even calling a Melbourne Park court 1573 Arena after one of Luzhou’s flagship products.
Drew Pavlou, an Australian human rights campaigner, said that Tennis Australia prioritized its relationship with its sponsor over Peng’s safety.
He told the Daily Mail Australia, “I doubt they would have removed these sorts of messages if they weren’t getting US $25million a year from Luzhou”.
“That’s not to speak of the millions they get from deals with Chinese TV companies to broadcast the tournament.”
“It’s a sign of how just valuable Chinese money has become in Australian politics.”
Kenneth Roth—director of New York-based Human Rights Watch—tweeted, “Tennis Australia is preventing spectators at the Australian Open from wearing ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts.
“One of the Australian Open’s ‘major commercial partners is Chinese premium liquor brand Guojiao 1573.'”
Nicolas Mahut, a French tennis player—famous for playing in the longest ever tennis match at Wimbledon in 2010—also accused Australian Open organizers of “lacking courage.”
He tweeted, “What’s going on!? What a lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors.”