Tennis Star Li Na’s Chinese Home Province Defends Its Cash Prize

The Chinese province where Australian Open tennis champion Li Na grew up defended its decision to award her 800,000 yuan ($132,000) amid criticism the money could have been better spent, state media reported.

The prize, presented to 31-year-old Li as she arrived in the Hubei city of Wuhan this week after her victory in Melbourne, falls within government standards, China Youth Daily reported today, citing regional sports administration official Hu Dechun. The report quoted him as saying no rules had been broken.

The Hubei government decision to reward Li, who quit China’s state-run sports system in 2008 and now boasts endorsements worth more than $40 million, had sparked criticism on Chinese microblogs. Some felt the money could be spent on improving people’s livelihoods while others said Hubei had nothing to do with her success, the state-run Global Times reported today.

Govt slammed for giving Li Na cash award,” the newspaper’s headline read.

The Hubei award also gained attention after pictures were posted online showing an unsmiling Li accepting an oversized red check from a regional official. Users contrasted the photo with another that showed her beaming as she stood with the tennis tournament trophy on a beach in Australia.

Li became the first Chinese national to win a tennis Grand Slam when she captured the French Open title in 2011. She drew attention after that victory and following her win in Australia for not thanking China or its government, which has sometimes claimed credit for her success.

“It doesn’t matter that Li Na didn’t say ‘thank you motherland’ -- she is a Chinese person and a product of Chinese history, and that’s enough to make us happy,” a Jan. 26 commentary in the Global Times said.

Li wasn’t smiling in the latest pictures because she was tired and had just gotten off a long flight, China Youth Daily quoted Hu as saying.