Even the Australian Open champion seems unimpressed by government’s inappropriate donation

January 25, 2014, will remain a historic date for Chinese tennis: the day Li Na defeated Dominika Cibulkova and became the first Chinese tennis player to win the Australian Open. It was her second Grand Slam after winning the 2011 French Open. Officials in Hubei – her native province – were so excited by the event that local Party chief Li Hongzhong and provincial Governor Wang Guosheng set up a welcome ceremony on January 27. They awarded the returning champion Rmb 800,000 ($132,000) as a manifestation of support from the province which has given the country its best tennis player ever.

Unfortunately, it seems that a good part of the country in question does not agree that Ms Li’s prize should be paid from from taxpayers money, as is suspected. Even more unfortunately, Ms Li herself might belong to the group of people who do not appreciate officials squandering money on extravagant gifts.

This television grab shows an unsmiling Li Na receiving her RMB800,000 prize.

The operation engineered by local authorities started to go awry when provincial Governor Wang Guosheng was immortalized by photographers as he handed Ms Li a large red placard representing the administration’s prize. The widely seen photograph shows and unsmiling Li Na, her lips sealed, as she receives a check worth roughly 22 times the income of her average countryman. Ms Li’s feelings have been subject to discussion. Was she tired? According to Bloomberg, in 2011 Ms Li signed endorsement contracts worth at least $42 million, and some have suggested that she could not care less for such a ‘paltry’ sum as the one handed out by Hubei’s authorities. Or was she disgruntled because insensitive officials were trying to woo the public by exploiting her victory? Nobody knows for sure. Just like nobody knows where the money exactly came from – even though everybody is guessing the public coffers.

As more and more people saw the image, comments began to flow on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter. Bloggers targeted the usual culprits: officials with little regard for the funds they are supposed to administer on behalf of their citizens. One user wondered if there was no better way to spend the public treasure: “how many impoverished families, widowed elders and school dropouts can be helped with Rmb 800,000? Yet it went to someone who doesn’t even need it.” Another user shared the feeling that authorities had wasted resources without any good reason: “instead of sending help to those who are in need, they are here gilding the lily. Shame.”

The story drew so much attention that even official media outlets felt the need to address it. The People’s Daily – usually regarded as the government’s voice – published an opinion piece titled “The government’s Rmb 800,000 award to Li Na is against the ethics of public finance.” According to the article, “the government should spend more time helping those who are in need, and less gilding the lily.” It goes on to say that “Li Na is not short of money, Rmb 800,000 mean little to her. But there are a lot of children in poor areas in Hubei province who are in need of help, some kids need help from the society even to get their winter clothes….” The author concluded wondering why “the government, instead of using the 800,000 Rmb to provide timely help, used it recklessly in awarding the sportsman.” “Whose money is it? Who authorized it? Based on what?” quipped Xinhua, the national news agency, on its official Weibo page.

A much happier Li Na in Melbourne just a day earlier. Pic: AP.

While opinions are less unanimously negative concerning Li Na’s funereal face, what happened was hardly uplifting for her image. The Xin Min Evening Daily – a paper owned by the Shanghai government – compared Ms Li’s profusion of smiles abroad with her less enthusiastic outlook at home and wrote: “no matter what the reason might be, the way Li Na behaved in front of the public is indeed not appropriate. Celebrities are not like ordinary people [and], while enjoying celebrity and great glories they should also take up the corresponding duties and social responsibilities.” According to the paper, “Li Na’s face is as overcast as the weather in Wuhan.” For anyone who knows how the sky in Wuhan often looks, that is a grim comparison.

Netizens were not amused either. One wrote on Weibo: “if she doesn’t want them, she can donate them. There are plenty of people who need money. No need to put on such a face.” According to a user named Meili Qingjiang, the champion is simply “spoiled by the people.”

Besides how this story will play out for authorities in Hubei and for the sports star, one thing is clear: the Chinese public is increasingly sensitive about how public money is managed. The fact that such a small story has inflamed the web and caused official media to respond is a sign that millions of watchful eyes are pointed toward the ruling élite. And they are unforgiving, even when the protagonist is their first compatriot to win the Australian Open.