Citizenship for sale? Tennis star in Taiwan causes a political stir

A Taiwanese tennis champion Hsieh Su-wei tapped into her homeland's deep political insecurities after word spread that she was willing to become a citizen of China. That is, if she gets the right endorsement contract.

Reported by: Dan Levin
Last updated on Saturday, 20 July, 2013 08:45 IST
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Beijing: What is the quickest way for a professional athlete in Taiwan to get a sponsorship deal? Perhaps by threatening to shift her allegiance to China.

A Taiwanese tennis champion tapped into her homeland's deep political insecurities after word spread that she was willing to become a citizen of China. That is, if she gets the right endorsement contract.

Taiwan is a self-governing island, but China regards it as a breakaway province.

The player, Hsieh Su-wei, 27, this month became the first person from Taiwan to win a Grand Slam title, claiming the women's doubles championship at Wimbledon with Shuai Peng of China. When Hsieh returned to Taiwan, fans showered her with garlands of flowers.

The victory celebration, however, was subdued by Hsieh's father, who said that a Chinese liquor company had offered her 10 million renminbi a year, or $1.63 million, to represent the western province of Qinghai in China's national sports competition. That would require her to renounce her Taiwanese citizenship, he said.

Of course, it could have been a bluff - pressing a geopolitical hot button to drum up support. Either way, it effectively got Taiwan's attention.

"Su-wei might have to become a mainlander to play in the National Games, but we prefer that doesn't happen," her father, Hsieh Tzu-lung, said in a telephone interview this week.

China and Taiwan have been archrivals since 1949, when the Communists prevailed in a bloody civil war and the Nationalists retreated to the island.

Although the foes have warmed to each other as China's economic power has grown in recent years, Beijing has vowed to retake Taiwan by force if necessary if it officially declares independence. The political stalemate reaches into the realm of sports, where Taiwan must enter international competitions as Chinese Taipei.

Sports and patriotism are familiar teammates. So Hsieh's possible defection has stoked further unease among the Taiwanese, who fear that their political and cultural identities will be swallowed up by China.

Taiwan's government has mobilized domestic companies to come to the rescue. These include the state-owned Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Co., which has agreed to pay Hsieh about $167,700 to endorse Taiwan Beer.

"Our priority is that Su-wei can stay in Taiwan and play tennis with peace of mind," a company spokesman, Su K'uei-yang, said in a phone interview. The deal, which the company hopes to finalize this summer, would not prohibit her from signing with a Chinese company.

For all the political intrigue, Hsieh's father says the potential nationality swap is primarily a matter of paying for coaches, doctors and airfare.

"My biggest concern right now is money," he said. "I have three children playing pro tennis right now, and we don't have enough funds."

Yet many are wondering if the controversy is merely a ploy aimed at gaining endorsements by tugging political heartstrings.

The family has refused to identify the Chinese liquor company offering a sponsorship deal. New doubts arose last week, when the vice director of the Qinghai provincial sports bureau denied that such an offer was on the table, according to China's state media.

Hsieh has said she is not interested in becoming a Chinese citizen, although amid the current controversy, what she wants seems to be beside the point.

"My best guess is this is a publicity stunt to make the Taiwanese people feel a sense of crisis in order to obtain more funding for the family," said Hu Jianyi, who covers tennis for Sports Illustrated China.

This is not the first time a pursuit of a professional tennis career has led to diplomatic tangles. In 1982, a Chinese tennis star named Hu Na defected to the United States during a tournament in California, later applying for political asylum.

At the time, China prohibited athletes from going pro because of previous international sporting rules that allowed only amateurs to participate in international competitions.

When Hu's request for asylum was granted in 1983, the embarrassed Chinese government suspended some cultural exchanges in an effort to punish the United States. Hu later moved to Taiwan, where she set up a tennis training center that eventually counted Hsieh as a student.

In recent years, sports have strengthened ties between China and Taiwan as athletes have trained together and played side by side in matches around the world. With tennis becoming more popular among China's growing middle class, Hu has returned to the mainland many times to build support for the sport and to visit her family.

Hu thinks the flare-up involving Hsieh will not have a long-term impact, regardless of the outcome.

"The reality is Taiwan doesn't put enough value on sports, and sponsorships for pro athletes are very limited, so the Taiwanese public will understand," Hu said.

(Mia Li contributed research)

© 2013 New York Times News Service

Story first published on: Saturday, 20 July 2013 08:40 IST

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