Newly crowned Australian Open women’s champion Li Na is the toast of China, and deservedly so. Her 7-6, 6-0 victory over Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova makes her the oldest female winner in the open era of the tournament. Although a nation of almost 1.4 billion people and a rising superpower, relatively few of the China’s citizens have prevailed in genuinely international sporting codes such as tennis, which is dominated by Europeans and Americans. This makes Li a genuine pioneer.
Li’s victory speech was lauded as funny, entertaining and engaging, with the Herald Sun labelling it the ‘best Australian Open speech ever’. It was noteworthy for its humorous but heartfelt gratitude expressed for her husband and hitting partner. Yet it was also noteworthy in that Li failed to express thanks to her homeland. She did the same when she won her first Grand Slam major title, the French Open, in 2011. This is rare for Chinese champions and high achievers in any sporting or artistic field, whether it be basketball, soccer, chess or music. In her excitement and joy, it may have been an oversight signifying nothing. But there is at least as good a chance that the omission was deliberate.
That Li did not thank China or praise the state-backed Chinese sporting system was certainly noticed in the expanding Chinese blogosphere. Her victory generated around half a million posts on the Sina Weibo blog site. All duly noted and praised Li’s achievement. But many also noted, mainly positively, that she left China out of her ‘thank yous’. One typical post wrote: “Congrats, Li Na! Li Na didn’t stick with clichés thanking the motherland or the party … Support Li Na!”. Another reminded readers that “the government isn’t spending money on her. These honours don’t belong to the country, but to her alone”.
There is a context to these comments, of which many Chinese tennis fans are well aware. Worth an estimated $US40 million, Li is often assumed to be a product of the state’s sporting talent development regime, as many other Chinese athletes are. But Li’s relationship with the country’s official sporting and talent bodies is somewhat complicated.
After being spotted and selected by government coaches at the age of nine, she controversially left the state program at 20 in order to develop her technique on her own. (She re-joined the program for a very brief time at the age of 27, but promptly left again.)
One suspects that leaving the state talent development program was not just about learning different playing techniques. Her decision to marry while still competing would have raised eyebrows since Chinese state-sponsored athletes are generally banned from even dating other people. A large proportion of a state-sponsored athlete’s earnings – 65 per cent in tennis – are commandeered by the state’s sporting bureaucrats, attracting the ire of Chinese athletes and citizens alike. Unlike most athletes in China who have to pay back some of the support the state has offered them even if they do not go on to sporting success, Li’s decision has paid off as she now keeps most of her earnings, after paying the usual taxes. She now pays only 12 per cent of her commercial income and 8 per cent of her winnings to the Chinese Tennis Association, which grudgingly allowed her to leave under these terms.
It is obvious that the issue of China’s state-run sporting talent development system is never far from the conversation when it comes to Li. Just two days before the Australian Open final, Li wondered aloud at a news conference whether being a product of the Chinese state sporting system at an earlier age had “helped or hindered” her career. The state-run Xinhua news service is clear where it stands, recently arguing that “Li Na’s success would not be possible without her time on the national team”. Interestingly, one Chinese blogger argued that “by this way of thinking, Li Na’s success also would not have been possible without the roll she ate at her last meal”.
Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that her success came several years after she left the state system and was allowed to choose her own coaches and mentors rather than accept the ones appointed to her by the state. During the Australian Open in 2011, Li proclaimed: “Don’t say I’m doing this for my country’s glory. I do this for me.” It was a reiteration of the sentiments expressed by the fictional Soviet state-sponsored boxer Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren) in the film Rocky IV.
China’s state-run media subsequently criticised Li for having a ‘big mouth’ after making that statement. Indeed, after winning the Australian Open over the weekend, Li subsequently turned down a prestigious invitation to appear on China’s high profile Grand Festival state-run television program, preferring instead to bring in the Lunar New Year with her mother.
There is no evidence that Li is intending to make any political statement. In an interview with the New York Times in 2013, Li explained that “I really, truly think that I am just an athlete,’ but one who “can represent nothing but myself”. But there is little doubt that her ‘rebel’ status is as unpopular with many Chinese officials as Li is popular amongst Chinese citizens.
But even if Li is just making an individual choice about how best to run her own career and life, the debate will rage on in China. As one net citizen puts it in Sino Weibo, “Li Na proves that you can be just as good without the system.’ Another writes: “It’s true, without the state’s support, Li Na would never have won the championship at 31… She might have gotten it at 21.” And another: “To her fans, Li’s Australian victory was symbolic of new possibilities in China.”
They might just be writing about one athlete in one sport. But when it comes to the country’s advancement in other areas, the 24 million Chinese Communist Party officials have to decide whether Li’s life choices are to be lauded or condemned – with enormous consequences for the other 1.4 billon people under their rule.
Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, and a Director of the Kokoda Foundation.
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