Activists concerned for the welfare of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai have taken to the Australian Open ahead of Ash Barty’s final.
Shirts with the words ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ can be seen dotted throughout the crowds at Melbourne Park tonight ahead of the Australian Open women’s final.
It comes after a spectator was told to remove a shirt with the same words last week amid ongoing concerns for the Chinese tennis star’s welfare.
Tennis Australia told News Corp Australia that it feared for Peng’s safety but that fans were not permitted to make political statements with their clothing at the Australian Open.
“Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” a Tennis Australia spokesperson said.
“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.”
But later in the week, TA backflipped, saying it would take a commonsense approach, while Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said fans could show support for Shuai provided it was “done in an appropriate way and does not disturb the courts themselves”
In response, activists raised more than $20,000 to make shirts and hand them out on Saturday night ahead of Ash Barty and Danielle Collins’ final.
Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, took to Chinese social media site Weibo in November last year to allege that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her at his house during an on-off relationship spanning several years.
She was not heard from for weeks, sparking fears about her wellbeing, and then reappeared to deny making the allegations of sexual assault saying her social media post in November was misinterpreted.
There have been calls within the industry for more transparency from Beijing over Peng’s whereabouts, with concerns she is being censored.
Women’s Tennis Association Tour chairman Steve Simon announced last month the women’s tennis circuit was suspending all tournaments in China over concerns about the safety of Peng.
Tibetan human rights campaigner Kyinzom Dhongdue, who was handing out the shirts at the gate of Melbourne Park, told news.com.au she had flown from Sydney to Melbourne this morning to take part.
“What Tennis Australia did last week was they tried to censor us, tried to silence us, silence a group of human rights activists that came here to show support for Peng Shuai,” she said.
“China has a track record of forcing its people to fabricate claims. Her whereabouts and her condition cannot be verified, unless it is independently verified.
“If she OK, why is she not able to speak freely to independent media? That’s what we are here for. We are concerned about her.”
Three tennis fans told news.com.au they were proudly wearing the shirts and said the confrontation between security and the activist at the Australian Open last week had brought “heightened awareness” to the situation.
Earlier this week, news.com.au asked Barty in a press conference whether she would mind people in the crowd wearing the shirts, but she said she hadn’t seen the incident and therefore couldn’t answer.
news.com.au is seeking comment from Tennis Australia about whether spectators will be asked to remove the shirts.