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Tennis Star's 'Bonus' Sparks Chinese Public Outrage

Chinese tennis star Li Na accepts a check from Hubei Communist Party chief Li Hongzhong Tuesday, January 28, 2014 following her weekend championship win at the 2014 Australian Open.
Chinese tennis star Li Na fulfilled a long-cherished dream in January by winning the 2014 Australian Open Women’s Championship. But she is apparently not happy with the official recognition she received upon returning home this week.

Li Na became the first Chinese and first Asian to win the tournament in Melbourne, which is the only tennis Grand Slam held in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Li Na is possibly one of the most popular athletes in China at the moment, if not the most popular, probably surpassing Yao Ming, the basketball player,” said Josh Chin, editor of The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report.

Li Na of China holds the championship trophy at the Australian Open tennis championship.(AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)
Li Na of China holds the championship trophy at the Australian Open tennis championship.(AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)
In a witty victory speech, Li thanked her husband, her coach and her agent, but not her country. The omission was noticed in China.

“I would say most people [in China] were just happy to see her win, although state media probably was a little disappointed that she didn’t mention her country,” said Liz Carter, assistant editor of Foreign Policy/Tea Leaf Nation, who monitors Chinese media. “I didn’t see any reaction among regular people of displeasure or criticism.”

What did upset many in China was a cash bonus she received upon her return home.

Returning to her home province of Hubei this week, Li was greeted by a government official who presented her with a check for 800,000 yuan - the equivalent of $132,000. Chinese social media was quick to notice that Li was photographed with a notably grim expression on her face.

The official Xinhua news agency also weighed in, carrying a commentary on Wednesday that called the event "embarrassing" and "money-worshipping". It cited Xiao Huanyu, a sports professor in Shanghai, as saying: "The government deems sports achievement a kind of political achievement. Therefore it needed to hand out the bonus to 'show its face' even though Li Na's triumph had little to do with the government."

The public reaction was largely supportive of Li's apparent disgust. “A lot of people seemed to agree with her expression,” said Chin. "[They] essentially wondered why the government was giving her this money.”

Li’s agent negotiated at least $40 million in endorsements after she won the French Open in 2011. At that time, Hubei officials gave her the equivalent of $99,000, which Li donated to charity. She has not yet indicated what she will do with the latest government gift, but a lawyer is looking into the situation.

“A lawyer in Guangzho, I believe, has filed an open information, public records request with the Hubei government to ask them to explain where the money came from, and how the decision was made to give her the money,” said Chin.

The tennis champion has had a mixed relationship with the state athletic system that she left in 2008, to pursue an independent and ultimately lucrative career. She has chosen her coaches, tournaments, and an agent who, as she said in her Australian Open victory speech, “makes me rich.”

Before opting out of the Chinese Tennis Association, Li was required to surrender 65 percent of her earnings to the government system, which trained her since her youth. Today, Li pays the association between eight and 12 percent of her income.

Li Na’s charisma has won her many fans. “Part of it is that she doesn’t go out seeking that attention,” Carter said. “Part of her charisma I think is that it’s pretty obvious she really cares about the game, and it seems like everything else, her endorsements, how she fits in as a symbol of China, that’s all secondary to her.”

But Li can be tough as well. “She has been known to kind of bite the nose off [sharply criticize] reporters who ask her questions she doesn’t want to answer,” said Carter. Li also reprimanded a crowd at a match who were making too much noise cheering her.

An early defeat at the French Open last year caused Li to consider retirement. But after talking with her coach Carlos Rodriguez, she decided to stay the course, which led to her Australian Open championship.

The tennis star is currently taking a break from the tour, celebrating Lunar New Year in China with her family.