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25 Jan, 2022 10:33

Australian Open backtracks on Peng Shuai protest policy

The tennis Grand Slam had previously banned 'Where is Peng Shuai?' T-shirts
Australian Open backtracks on Peng Shuai protest policy

Australian tennis bosses have reversed their ban on T-shirts which protest the situation surrounding Chinese former doubles world number one Peng Shuai.

The 36-year-old Peng disappeared from the public eye in November when she took to Chinese social media platform Weibo to accuse ex-Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her.

After the post was swiftly taken down, Peng was seldom seen until a December appearance at a cross-country skiing event in Shanghai alongside basketball icon Yao Ming. 

While there, she gave an interview and denied making accusations of Zhang while claiming that there had been "a lot of misunderstandings" related to her 1,600-word note.

After the WTA pulled its events in China in protest, some spectators at Melbourne Park continued the campaign by wearing "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts and unfurling a banner with the message.

As shown online, though, activists such as Drew Pavlou and pro-Hong Kong democracy advocate Max Mox were accosted by security and seemed to have their T-shirts confiscated as their use was deemed to be a 'political statement'. 

"I’m not saying you can’t have those views but Tennis Australia sets the rules here," the guard explains in the video, with a Sunday statement from the Australian tennis governing body explaining their stance.

"Under our ticket conditions of entry, we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political," a spokesperson stressed to the Guardian.

"Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her wellbeing."

In reaction to this, tennis legend Martina Navratilova called the approach "pathetic" and said Tennis Australia was "capitulating" to China.

Peter Dutton, who is Australia’s defense minister, insisted to Sky News that Peng’s safety isn't "a political issue" and instead "a human rights issue." 

"And it’s frankly about the treatment of a young woman who is claiming that she has been sexually assaulted," he added.

Joining him, Foreign Minister Marise Payne stated that freedom of speech must be defended and said she had respect for Peng’s "strength in making those disclosures" when leveling her accusations at Zhang. 

In a U-turn, Tennis Australia head Craig Tiley, who is already facing calls to step down following his handling of the Novak Djokovic vaccine and visa scandal, announced that the ban will be reversed as long as those donning the T-shirts behave themselves – though banners will still be prohibited as they pose a safety risk.

"Yes, as long as they are not coming as a mob to be disruptive but are peaceful," Tiley told the AFP. "It’s all been a bit lost in translation from some people who are not here and don’t really know the full view.

"The situation in the last couple of days is that some people came with a banner on two large poles and we can’t allow that. If you are coming to watch the tennis that’s fine, but we can’t allow anyone to cause a disruption at the end of the day."

A Tennis Australia source said to The Guardian that decisions on what will be allowed inside Melbourne Park are to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Next Saturday, security will have their work cut out for them when a GoFundMe campaign named "Hand Out Peng Shuai Shirts" does just that for free with over $13,000 raised thus far.

"I think if any of us were in Peng Shuai’s position, silenced and cut off from the world by an unaccountable government, we would hope that someone, somewhere would care," read part of the proposal.

"I think most of us would hope that people across the world would not look the other way but instead raise as much noise and hell about it as possible. This is the idea behind printing off a thousand Peng Shuai shirts for the final."