BREAKING – Australian Open security call in police on human rights activists @pakchoi_boi @maxmokchito for wearing “Free Peng Shuai” shirts, try force @pakchoi_boi to take off shirt in public area right next to @naomiosaka training session – the most vocal athlete on Peng Shuai pic.twitter.com/qAPPmEJEZt— Drew Pavlou For Senate (@DrewPavlou) January 21, 2022
Peng, 36, has won doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open. But she fell out of public view in November, after she accused a former Communist Party official of sexual assault. Peng said her encounters with Zhang Gaoli began 10 years ago, when Zhang was one of the most powerful people in China.
Peng’s post to social media was soon deleted, and after weeks of silence, she emerged in late December to deny ever making such an accusation. Her well-being became a cause for concern beyond the sports world, with both the Women’s Tennis Association and Amnesty International speaking out on her behalf. WTA officials received an email in mid-November that was purportedly from Peng, but they said they doubted its authenticity.
Australian Open organizers have blocked a protester wearing a T-shirt asking “Where is Peng Shuai?” from attending the event. But activists who are concerned for the Chinese athlete’s safety are doubling down on their efforts, and they’re drawing support from some current and former players, according to NPR.
“I find it really, really cowardly,” tennis great Martina Navratilova said on the Tennis Channel. “This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.”
Peng’s status has been an open question since November, when she accused a man who was once in the inner circle of China’s ruling Communist Party of sexual assaulting her.
Tournament security personnel in Melbourne confiscated a banner with the message and told a woman to change her T-shirt on Friday, stating that the message was political — and thus not allowed into the arena where the Grand Slam event is being played. Activist Drew Pavlou says a new fundraising campaign aims to pay for a thousand of the shirts to be distributed at the arena.
Tennis Australia said the security guards acted correctly by not allowing the banner and shirts, citing its longstanding policy barring political messages. But the explanation quickly triggered criticism that organizers are bowing to China’s influence by categorizing a question about Peng’s whereabouts as a political statement.
French player Nicolas Mahut asked whether organizers’ views might be tainted by a lucrative sponsorship deal with a Chinese liquor brand — a high-profile court is currently named 1573 Arena, and the logo is plastered on walls around the venue.
“It’s just been absolutely heartbreaking to see what has happened” to Peng, retired U.S. player Lindsay Davenport said on the Tennis Channel. She added, “People in tennis, we want to see her. She was a real part of this Tour. But most importantly, we want to know she’s OK.”
The dispute over the Peng T-shirts comes after the Australian Open’s first week was overshadowed by superstar Novak Djokovic’s legal battle to compete in the tournament despite not being vaccinated — a fight that resulted in his deportation.