The political message in Li Na’s Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup

Alia | January 30th, 2014 - 4:10 am

While Li Na’s post-victory speech charms the world, back home, it stirs up waves of debates of who should get the credit for the 31-year-old tennis champion’s victory, Li Na herself or China, her mother country?

4The answer would be an easy one if Li Na wasn’t from China, a country where most professional athletes are selected and trained from a very young age with government funds through a Soviet-like state sports system. Debates about this question, however ridiculous in the eyes of outsiders, are important in today’s China because they speak more of the changing political views of the Chinese people than of sports.

As one netizen 北极寻北  put it, the state sports system in China “allows no individualistic heroism.” That’s why Chinese athletes typically express their thanks for China in their post-victory speeches before anything else. Li Na, who officially split from the state sports system in 2008 and went “solo”, has no thanks for China, neither after her victory at the French Open in 2011, nor after her recent victory at the Australia Open.

The Chinese people are used to athletes expressing gratitude to “China”, which, in this case, embodies the state system that has “cultivated” these athletes. Back in a few years, few questioned the legitimacy of such gratitude – after all, the athletes are indeed supported by government funds. As part of the country’s patriotism education, winning a medal has long been portrayed as a glorifying moment of the country. It was not uncommon to see people accusing Li Na of not loving her country because she didn’t thank her motherland.

Now people are asking “Why thank the country?” Behind the question is a growing realization that the state and its ruling government isn’t the same as China, the country. There is no need to be a patriot of both. In fact, more and more people agree that to love the country, sometimes one has to go against the state.

More importantly, many Chinese people, now more than ever, hold the belief that China is China because of its people, the billions of individuals. And their takeaway from Li Na’s victory is that individuals can challenge the state, and that these individuals don’t always lose.

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The picture above in which a very unhappy Li Na accepted an 800,000 yuan prize from the local government of her hometown of Hubei went viral globally this week.  But more interesting than Li Na’s long face was the reaction among the Chinese. Less were questioning Li Na’s attitude. More were asking whether Hubei government had the right to give away tax payer’s money like this.

Among the 85,000 people who took a poll on Sina Weibo, 77% opposed Hubei government’s action of issuing Li Na the prize. Why? “We, the people of Hubei, didn’t authorize the government to spend our tax money in such a way,” commented one netizen 蝸牛我爬啊爬.

It’s no longer the government’s money, it’s “our” money. Just like Li Na said in an interview back in 2011: “I’m not doing tennis for the glory of my country. I’m doing it for myself.”

 

 

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2 Responses to “The political message in Li Na’s Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup”

  1. Mark Dreyer says:

    “Li Na…[had] no thanks for China…after her victory at the French Open in 2011″

    Not exactly true. She didn’t thank “the motherland” as such, but she did make a point of thanking Madame Sun Jinfang, one of the state’s top tennis officials, in the press conference afterwards, and gave credit to the state system.

    The second paragraph, however, is spot on.

  2. Paul Shanahan says:

    ‘Hunan’ is not Li Na’s home town. Hunan is a province to the south of the province she is from.

    She is from Wuhan, Hubei Province and the cadre she is receiving the cheque from is from Hubei provincial government.

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