Among the voices expressing concern for Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai (彭帥) over the past two weeks, one was barely audible — that of her long-time former doubles partner Hsieh Su-wei (謝淑薇).
Following their defeat in the WTA Finals championship match in Mexico on Nov. 18, Taiwan’s Hsieh and her Belgian partner Elise Mertens fielded questions via a Zoom call. Chinese state media had just released an incredibly suspicious e-mail, purportedly from Peng, and Canadian tennis Web site Open Court broached the issue.
With the entire tennis world chiming in, seeking Hsieh’s opinion seemed obvious.
However, the Web site’s reporter prefaced her question with an acknowledgement of the issue’s sensitivity. If there is anything more controversial than a Chinese celebrity commenting on Chinese politics, it is a Taiwanese one doing so. Asked whether she had tried to contact Peng, Hsieh said she had been busy with visa issues and that it was Mertens’ birthday.
“I hope she’s OK,” was the best she could offer on her former partner.
Given the reportedly fractured relationship between the pair, Hsieh’s reticence is understandable. After their 2013 doubles title at Wimbledon, Hsieh was asked what this first Grand Slam trophy meant for Taiwan.
“Taiwan is not a country,” Peng snapped as Hsieh tried to answer.
During their appearances in China, they were feted as the “Chinese world No. 1 duo.”
Yet, in keeping with the contradictory nature of its statements and actions on Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempted to lure Hsieh into its fold with a US$1.63 million offer to switch citizenship shortly after the Wimbledon success. This was not an isolated tactic. Five-time major-winning golfer Yani Tseng (曾雅妮) was also approached over a passport switch, while former nine-ball pool world champ Wu Jiaqing (吳珈慶) took the plunge, obtaining Chinese citizenship in 2011.
Tap-ups are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to China’s interference in Taiwan’s sporting life.
For decades, Beijing has done its utmost to isolate and humiliate Taiwan through its bitter brand of sports diplomacy.
Taiwanese flags have been banned from stadiums on home soil, even at events where China is not involved, snatched out of the hands of sobbing children at international youth games, and removed from Taipei roadsides, lest they be spotted by Chinese officials en route to venues.
During a Davis Cup match in Taipei in 2007, an agreement was signed stipulating that “in addition to a prohibition on Taiwanese national symbols, the nation’s competitors must maintain a conservative attitude and refrain from overt displays of national pride.”
If the official name foisted upon the organization were not humiliation enough, the Chinese Taipei Tennis Association said that it had “no choice.”
At the 2017 World University Games in Taipei, Argentina’s athletes earned censure for carrying Taiwanese flags at the event’s closing ceremony.
Things turned more sinister at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, when Japanese state-owned broadcaster NHK referred to “Taiwan,” rather than “Chinese Taipei,” in its coverage and medals table, prompting Beijing to fulminate over “little tricks to seek ‘independence’ through sporting events,” which would “only reap the consequences.”
NBC was also berated for displaying an “incomplete” map of China and “politicizing” the Games — a line that Beijing routinely uses with no sense of irony.
However, there are signs that changes are afoot.
Step forward Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter. Having accused fellow National Basketball Association player LeBron James of choosing “money over morals” for his poltroonery on China, Kanter took things further when the Celtics faced James’ Lakers in Boston on Nov. 19 wearing customized sneakers featuring an image of “King” James kneeling to be crowned by “Emperor” Xi Jinping (習近平), China’s president.
Kanter had previously worn shoes with slogans supporting Tibet and the Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang Province, who face a genocidal campaign of repression. He has called for a boycott of next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics and, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, lambasted the International Olympic Committee for parroting CCP rhetoric on Peng’s disappearance.
While other athletes have condemned China’s crimes in Xinjiang, Kanter is the first to raise Taiwan’s case.
In addition to showcasing sneakers with the slogans “Stand with Taiwan” and “Taiwan belongs to the Taiwanese people” — echoing John Oliver’s remarks last month on his Last Week Tonight show — Kanter posted a video on Twitter on Nov. 12 in which he voiced unequivocal support for Taiwan.
“Taiwan is not a part of China,” Kanter said in the video. “Taiwan is a democratic and free country, and I stand with Taiwan.”
In a sign of how much it means for public figures to speak up, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) replied directly to Kanter’s post with her own video in which she said that the NBA player’s support “gives us strength.”
With the Women’s Tennis Association threatening to pull all nine of its tournaments from China over the Peng impasse, Taiwan will hope to capitalize on the sports world’s growing antipathy toward Beijing’s heavy-handed tactics.
What better place for Taipei to start than by bidding for events that are withdrawn from China?
James Baron is a freelance writer and journalist based in Taipei.
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