Free Tibet campaigners confronted at Wimbledon for asking “Where is Peng Shuai?”

Warnings from security personnel against the group making political statements prompted a huge backlash

Free Tibet activists were confronted by security at the Wimbledon Championships on Monday after they were spotted wearing T-shirts asking “Where is Peng Shuai?”.

Free Tibet and Power to Hongkongers activists had attended the tennis competition in Wimbledon to raise awareness about the Chinese tennis player and former Wimbledon doubles champion Peng Shuai.

Peng Shuai attracted international concern last November after she wrote a social media post accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault. Shortly after the accusation, the post was deleted and Peng Shuai disappeared. Although she later reappeared and retracted her accusations, international observers expressed fears that she may have been subject to pressure and that her public appearances appeared to be staged.

The activists next to an image of Peng Shuai

The activists at Wimbledon

The controversy prompted the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to suspend all its competitions in China last year.

While walking around the grounds of the All England Club, the venue for the Wimbledon Championships, the four activists were approached by members of security. Security personnel searched them, warned them about political messaging and told them that they were not to approach other spectators, and that if they were joined by others to spread their message it would be a “problem”. They added that Wimbledon should remain politically “neutral”.

“We were peacefully walking around the grounds, occasionally talking to people about Peng Shuai,” Free Tibet representative Will Hoyles told a journalist from The Telegraph, adding “Peng Shuai is still not free and WTA agrees. Wimbledon should be speaking out for her release and not trying to stop tennis fans discussing human rights.”

Video footage showing them being questioned soon spread around social media, being shared by nine-time tennis champion Martina Navratilova, who has been outspoken in support of numerous human rights causes including the case of Peng Shuai. The incident was also covered by the BBC and newspapers including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times. 

Following the controversy, the All England Club appeared to backpedal. A spokesperson was reported as saying: 

“Like much of the tennis community and people around the world more broadly, we remain very concerned for Peng Shuai and we continue to support the WTA’s efforts.”

Jason Leith, Free Tibet activist, said:

“People in Tibet disappear on a regular basis following even the smallest and most arbitrary of slights against the Chinese Communist Party. Such disgusting detentions cannot be allowed to stand and at Free Tibet we stand in solidarity with all victims of Chinese state oppression including Peng Shuai.  The WTA have taken a strong stand against Peng Shuai’s persecution but the All England Club have shown hypocrisy by standing against the Russian warmongering but ignoring China’s human rights abuses, and cowardice by trying to suppress discussion of Peng Shuai’s fate. This is not the last action we have planned for Wimbledon Tennis this year. Watch this space.”

Three of the activists seated in the stands at Wimbledon later that afternoon

Three of the activists seated in the stands at Wimbledon later that afternoon

Free Tibet and its allies have closely followed Peng Shuai’s case since November, highlighting it in the run-up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. The pressure that the Chinese government put on the athlete, and the attempts by the International Olympic Committee to play down the severity of her alleged sexual assault and disappearance prompted Free Tibet and other Tibet groups to hold a press conference and mock funeral for the IOC outside its headquarters in Lausanne, where the groups also raised the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of Tibetans, Uyghurs and Hongkongers, along with the IOC’s silence.

The controversy at Wimbledon yesterday echoes a similar incident at the Australian Open in January when activists, including the human rights campaigner and political candidate Drew Pavlou, wore the same T-shirts before being told to remove them by security. Following a backlash, including from Martina Navratilova, who called Tennis Australia “cowardly”, Tennis Australia backed down and stated that fans could wear the T-shirts.

The Peng Shuai T-shirt protest originates from Chinese-Australian artist Xiao Niu, known on social media as pakchoi_boi, who created the shirts in January 2022 and wore them at the Australian Open to highlight Peng Shuai’s situation.

We are Free Tibet, and we stand with Tibetans around the world. For their homeland, for their future and against China’s brutal occupation.