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Li Na Lets Loose: China's Tennis Star Test Limits Of Speaking Her Mind

Analysis: Li Na became a national hero after she became the first Chinese player to win a Grand Slam singles final at last year's French Open. But she has enraged many after declaring that she plays tennis for herself, not her country. Patriots a

Li Na at last year's French Open (Frédéric de Villamil)
Li Na at last year's French Open (Frédéric de Villamil)
Liu Hongbo

BEIJING - Earlier this week at the Indian Wells Masters tournament in California, tennis star Li Na spoke after a victory over her fellow Chinese player Zheng Jie. Though it was the usual post-match press conference, her words have landed back in China with a thud. "I'm just a tennis player," she told reporters. "I'm not here at the tournament for my country. I just want to play my tennis. It's my job to do my very best. If in the past I've had to lie, now I want to say that actually I haven't been comfortable doing that. Because if you've lied your first lie, then you'll have to lie many more times to cover up that first lie. And I really don't want to do that anymore. I know many people are going to start hating me for speaking the truth, but does it matter anymore? I've finally found my own happiness."

This might sound normal enough to you and me, but not in China -- or at least not for some people in China. Li's words have sparked a major uproar in the Chinese media and blogosphere. With reactions both favorable and unfavorable, from praise to fanatical indignation, vivid emotions are on display.

If China's national team had summoned her to their ranks then her critics might have a point. But she was indeed playing on her own behalf in an individual professional match. So what has she said that was so wrong? Why are athletes always expected to be "ambassadors'? People do it for the money and they do it to fulfill their dreams. Being patriotic or unpatriotic is another question.

Of course, we cannot rule out that there are indeed people who think about their country all day long. They perhaps do it voluntarily. Do you know anyone like that?

However, we have to admit that the state is not always present at critical junctures in the ordinary folk's life and death, in their grace and disgrace. For most of us, just to work hard and to worry about how to lead a good life as best we can is all we can do. If that makes us unpatriotic, at least we are in good company.

I'm sure most of you will agree with me -- hey, it's common sense. But, for those of you who aren't much into common-sense, let me try again: Li Na said she plays the tennis matches for herself, not for her country... Well, so what? Will this cause harm to the state? Will it impede society or threaten anyone's interests? I believe that no matter what Li says, China will continue to "rise" and society will become ever more "harmonious."

Statues and slaps

It won't change the fact that most of us have to scramble and juggle for our living, while others lead a debauched life. Needless to say that Li Na, though playing tennis for herself, pays her taxes -- and also contributes to many charities.

One online comment went like this: "Money is your guts," implying that Li told the truth just because she is now rich and successful, so she can afford to be bold. This is indeed a very gloomy way of thinking, that one is a moral dwarf if one is neither rich nor successful.

Another comment said "We thought she was the glory of the nation and rushed to endow her with honor and to erect a statue for her. Now she's slapping us in the face…" But whether or not Li Na plays tennis for her country is her own business. If she happens to win, her country will be proud of her. Otherwise her country will largely ignore her.

It's not the first time that Li Na has provoked such a controversy. After winning last year's French Open in Paris, and receiving the championship cup, she thanked everybody from her fans, her rivals, her team, her husband and in particular her sponsor. Somehow, no doubt through an administrative oversight, she neglected to thank the Chinese Communist party. A real patriotic Chinese athlete would have done so…

Li Na is normal. What is abnormal? The norms of language in our society are abnormal. Honest words, alas, seems to be the enemy of Chinese society. And so what?

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Frédéric de Villamil

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