Australian Open: Fans allowed to wear ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts after backlash

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Two spectators wearing "Where is Peng Shuai?" T-shirts are pictured in the stands on day nine of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 25, 2022.

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Human rights activists behind the “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts have welcomed the Tennis Australia’s decision to allow fans to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan at the Australian Open, following the backlash over the Grand Slam’s controversial stance.

The about-turn followed a video emerging on Sunday of security staff ordering spectators to remove T-shirts and a banner in support of the Chinese player at Melbourne Park.

It prompted tennis legend Martina Navratilova to brand the move “pathetic”.

Peng, the former doubles world number one, is absent from Melbourne and there are fears for her wellbeing after she alleged online in November that she had been “forced” into sex by a Chinese former vice-premier during a years-long on-and-off relationship.

Her allegation was quickly censored and the 36-year-old was not heard of for nearly three weeks, before reappearing in public in China. However, concerns as to whether she is free or not still remain.

Tennis Australia, which organises the Australian Open, reiterated its long-standing policy on Monday of “not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political”.

But with pressure mounting, the tournament’s chief Craig Tiley said Tuesday that “fans at the Australian Open can wear “Where is Peng Shuai?” T-shirts as long as they are peaceful,” adding that security would make case-by-case assessments.

“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 GoFundMe page set up to raise money to print more T-shirts reached its €6,295 goal within two days, with activists pledging to make them available to whoever wants to wear them.

Relaxation of the policy came as local media cited human rights experts as saying Tennis Australia’s stance could be unlawful.

“There does not appear to be any proper basis for asking an attendee to remove a T-shirt that highlights a human rights issue,” revealed barrister Michael Stanton.

‘Deeply concerning’

The Australian government also waded in with Defence Minister Peter Dutton saying of the Peng situation that it is “deeply concerning and I think we should be speaking up about these issues”.

“I’d encourage not just celebrities but also tennis organisations, including Tennis Australia,” he added.

“We don’t want to drag sport into politics but this is not a political issue, it’s a human rights issue about the treatment of a young woman who is claiming that she’s been sexually assaulted.”

The Women’s Tennis Association has been widely praised for its stance on Peng, demanding to hear from her directly and suspending tournaments in China.

Leading players at the Australian Open have on several occasions said they still hope to hear from Peng so they can be assured of her safety.

Tiley reiterated that “our main concern is the welfare of Peng Shuai and we have worked closely with the WTA”.

“We have staff in China and used our resources to help locate where she was at the beginning. Since then, she’s come out and made some statements. We encourage her to have direct conversations,” he added.

“The most appropriate people to do that with is the WTA.”

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