Once again, Australian Open champ Li Na didn't thank her homeland -- and China noticed.
- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
After winning the Australian Open on Jan. 25, Li Na set off a media blitz in her native China, where the 31-year-old tennis star made the front page of most major papers. Much discussion surrounded Li’s post-victory speech, where she once again thanked her coach and husband — but not China — reigniting debate about what, if anything, she owes her country of origin. While state-run media praised Li’s win as a victory for China, many of Li’s fans felt that her success had nothing to do with her being Chinese. Some even argued that Li had won the title in spite of it.
Li previously ruffled government feathers after her first Grand Slam win at the French Open in 2011, when she also declined to thank her homeland. Most Chinese athletes express gratitude to China first, because many have risen to prominence through a state athletic system that selects and trains promising young people with government funds. But in 2008, Li joined with three other tennis players to opt out of that system, which pockets 65 percent of its participants’ earnings, as the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) allowed them to "fly solo." It is difficult for Chinese athletes to escape the state system of training, which begins for many in government-run sports schools and controls almost all aspects of their lives after they join. Even Li was required to continue giving 12 percent of her commercial income and eight percent of prize winnings to the CTA after she left the organization.
The independent path Li has taken since 2008 did not stop China’s official news outlets from seeking some credit for her most recent triumph. The state-run Global Times emphasized that there were no hard feelings: "Whether or not Li Na said that she ‘thanks the motherland,’ she’s still Chinese," the paper wrote. "Her success itself is the best thanks, the best way to give back to the motherland." This success, Xinhua argued, "would not have been possible without her time on the national team."
But on Chinese social media, where counter-narratives to the official line often thrive, many felt state media were trying to put words in Li’s mouth. She "didn’t thank the country," wrote one user of Weibo, China’s Twitter, "So they’ve started to thank themselves." Li has acknowledged the help she received from the state system in her younger days, but she took home both of her major Grand Slam tournament titles after striking out on her own. "She’s earned the pride of the Chinese people through her success," not her nationality, one commenter argued. "She didn’t thank her homeland, but the Chinese people should thank her for her efforts." One user questioned state media’s conclusion that Li Na’s victory depended on her earlier time inside China’s state athletic system. "By this way of thinking," he argued, "Li Na’s success also would not have been possible without the roll she ate at her last meal."
A number of netizens even alleged that the government had done more harm than good for Li. "It’s true, without the state’s support, Li Na would never have won the championship at 31," wrote one Weibo user. "She might have gotten it at 21." Another felt it was "shameful" that Li had been unable to develop her talents due to "all kinds of government restrictions." To her fans, Li’s Australian victory was symbolic of new possibilities in China. "Li Na proves that you can be just as good without the system," commented one on Weibo, "as long as you have the spirit and the will."
Li herself would likely object to the debate about whether she represents the triumph of the Chinese nation or the Chinese individual. "I really, truly think that I am just an athlete," Li told the New York Times in a 2013 interview. "I can represent nothing but myself."