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Saturday, September 25, 2021

What could being ‘Big in Beijing’ mean for Emma Raducanu?

Official messaging even got to work with her fondness, while on trips to visit her grandmother, for taking on the local professional table tennis players at the Shenyang Institute. It was that quirk, apparently, “which improved her abilities” in her chosen game as much as any other.

For those plotting Raducanu’s career this has huge commercial implications. For most of her contemporaries, the next stage in life is working out which university to go to. For her the immediate future is one in which she will require all of the skill inherent in picking up an A* in A-level maths this summer just to keep up with the zeroes appearing on her bank statement. Endorsements across the Chinese market can be enormously valuable. Personal appearances – when pandemic restrictions allow – would be particularly lucrative. Premier League clubs have long visited Shanghai and Beijing to play in pre-season friendlies. Imagine the value of Raducanu not only playing on one of the new show courts in the country but after the match addressing the crowd in their own tongue.

Such lucrative possibility does come with a price, however. When the former Arsenal footballer Mesut Özil tweeted his support for Uighurs in 2019, he was warned by his financial advisers he might be in danger of losing some endorsements. Well, that was one way of putting it. He was cancelled in the most extreme fashion, his avatar removed from video games, the two Chinese state broadcasters with rights to Premier League content refused to screen Arsenal matches and a search for his name on the internet brought up error messages.  

This has happened many times in the past to foreign celebrities from all industries. Even things said years ago can be archived up. This is happening right now to Canadian Chinese actor Simu Liu, who stars in Marvel’s latest blockbuster Shang Chi; the same happened to Chloé Zhao of Nomadland – both said unflattering things 5-10 years ago about China, and that was enough for censors to come down hard. Once you get famous, the censors and Chinese public start trawling for any moment you might have been critical about the regime.

From Naomi Osaka’s statements about mental health and LBGTQ rights to Novak Djokovic’s vaccine scepticism, tennis players have latterly become far more prepared to champion issues beyond the baseline. Raducanu’s cheery, happy-go-lucky countenance does not so far appear to have much interest in political controversy – which, Chadwick suggests, is probably allowing her financial advisers to sleep at night. When it comes to China, in order to succeed commercially, it is best to keep schtum.

Additional reporting by Sophia Yan and Wen Xu

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