Following a major outcry, the Australian Open has reversed its controversial ban on Where is Peng Shuai t-shirts at the tournament. A Chinese tennis star, Shuai came to the spotlight last year after making an explosive #MeToo complaint against a top government official in her country. Concerns about her safety abound as Shuai reportedly appears to have withdrawn from public view.
Reports last week said organisers behind the ongoing tennis series in Australia raised an issue with spectators flashing apparel with content relating to Shuai’s disappearance. According to the BBC, certain members of the audience were asked to change out of their ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ t-shirts before entering the grounds.
The content was deemed “political” in nature by organisers. While apparel referencing Shuai has now been permitted, as long as people are “not coming as a mob to be disruptive but are peaceful,” banners of similar nature are still prohibited.
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“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,” Craig Tiley, top official at Tennis Association, which organises the Australian Open, said in a statement to AFP.
Videos of the incident, wherein a spectator was allegedly asked to remove their Peng Shuai t-shirt last week, have gone viral on social media, prompting a flood of netizens and multiple high-profile figures to weigh in on the matter.
Speaking to Sky News, Australia’s defence minister Peter Dutton said Shuai’s case was not a political but a “human rights issue” and drew attention to the treatment of a woman alleging she was raped. “…we need to speak as one voice on this,” he said. Czech-American tennis icon Martina Navratilova criticised the ban, tweeting the move was “just pathetic.”
Hashtags of #whereispengshuai have taken on strong trends across social media platforms, especially Reddit, Twitter and TikTok.
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Where exactly is Peng Shuai?
Peng Shuai, 36, took to Chinese social media platform Weibo on November 2 last year and in a statement, accused Zhang Gaoli, a senior Communist Party leader, of sexually assaulting her three years prior. She claimed the two maintained sexual relations over several years but mentioned an incident when Gaoli allegedly coerced her into sex one afternoon at his home, while his wife was around.
As per reports, the statement was accessible only for a short period following which it was removed from Weibo, along with Shuai’s account. China is notorious for taking a heavy hand with censorship and Shuai’s claims, levelled against a politician, were the very first of its kind in China’s #MeToo movement.
While the allegations appeared to be trampled out, they persisted on worldwide social media through screenshots and second-hand reports, calling global attention to the matter. Reports suggested Shuai ‘disappeared’ soon after making the allegations, raising concerns for her well-being and safety.
The Chinese Tennis Association, affiliated with the Chinese state, communicated that Shuai was not under threat. Chinese media the same month released another statement, allegedly written by Shuai, in which she claimed the sexual assault claims she made against Gaoli were untrue. The veracity of the statement, however, has been widely called into question.
The International Olympic Committee said on December 2 that it was confirming Shuai’s safety over multiple interactions with her.