“Where is Peng Shua?” t-shirts demanded in the crowd of the Australian Open late last week as spectators showed their support for the Chinese tennis star.
The Australian tennis tournament was quick to ban the shirts, claiming that they constituted “commercial or political” material. Spectators at Melbourne Park were asked to remove the shirts, and tournament security confiscated a banner.
Victoria Police were eventually called over, and the officer said that while it was fine to have those views, Tennis Australia sets specific rules about what can and cannot be worn.
The move was met with widespread backlash. The rule was made public by young Brisbane activist Drew Pavlou, and since then, high-profile figures have been pushing back on Tennis Australia. They said that Tennis Australia’s primary concern is clearly not Peng’s safety.
Peng has all but vanished from public life after she posted on Weibo in November 2021 that the former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her. The post was quickly deleted from China’s intensely censored internet, but not before it immediately went viral. Peng then disappeared for a full 18 days following the accusation.
Towards the end of the year, Peng retracted her allegations in an interview. But there remain high fears that Peng is being censored and monitored, and not allowed to live or speak freely.
Members of Australia’s government joined in the backlash against Tennis Australia over the shirts. Defense Minister Peter Dutton said that Peng’s safety is not a political issue, but is a human rights issue, and is about the treatment of a young woman coming forward about sexual assault.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that freedom of speech needs to be defended and that she respects Peng’s strength in coming forward.
Tennis Australia’s chief executive and tournament director, Craig Tiley, announced on Tuesday that the ban would be reversed. Banners remain banned due to safety concerns.