The Women’s Tennis Association announced Wednesday that it is suspending its tournaments in China and Hong Kong in response to concerns about the safety and well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.
There has been mounting concern about Peng’s well-being since she alleged in a social media post Nov. 2 that she was sexually assaulted by a former senior Chinese official. After not being heard from for several weeks, Peng reemerged in Chinese media in late November, but concerns about her situation have not abated.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon wrote in a statement, adding that he was “greatly concerned” about the risks that WTA players and staff could face if it held tournaments in China in 2022.
“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable,” Simon wrote. “If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Peng, 35, a former world No. 1 doubles player, has been seen publicly just once since she posted her allegation in a social media post that vanished within hours.
Following alarm by her disappearance from public life, an international social media campaign “#WhereIsPengShuai” went viral.
Simon threatened Nov. 18 to pull all WTA events from the country after Chinese state media circulated an email attributed to Peng in which she renounced a previously posted allegation that she had been pressured into sex by Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China. Simon questioned the statement’s authenticity and called for an independent investigation of her claims.
Chinese officials responded by sharing footage of Peng ostensibly dining with friends Nov. 20. The next day, they arranged a video call between Peng and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who said he was satisfied that Peng was “fine” but failed to establish whether she was able to speak or travel freely, without government interference or intimidation. Human rights advocates sharply criticized Bach for using his stature as IOC president to shield the 2022 Olympics host rather than advocate for Peng.
On Tuesday, the European Union joined the White House and United Nations in calling for an investigation of Peng’s allegations and subsequent disappearance from public life. The WTA’s decision followed Wednesday, with Simon announcing the tour would pull its events from China and Hong Kong while offering concern for Peng’s well-being and a fierce defense of women’s voices around the world.
The WTA isn’t the first major sports organization to run afoul of the Chinese government amid attempts to tap its vast market.
The NBA has clashed with China over free-speech issues since 2019, when a Houston Rockets team executive voiced support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, triggering costly reprisals by government officials. When the NBA tried to distance itself, it was lambasted in the United States for equivocating on fundamental free-speech rights.
For the WTA, the decision has significant business implications. Like many global companies, the WTA invested heavily in China in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, eager to establish a commercial foothold in a market of 1.4 billion. The WTA chose Beijing as home for its new Asia-Pacific office in 2008. In the decade that followed, the number of WTA events in China more than quadrupled, from two to nine.
Simon’s action was met with approval from human rights activists and athletes.
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, predicted the WTA’s withdrawal would have ripple effects on other sports’ governing bodies that do business in China, forcing them to reconcile their profit motive with a host government that lacks a free press, surveils its citizens and attempts to muzzle athletes’ free speech.
“Why on Earth would any federation want to bring an event to China under these circumstances when you cannot protect your people?” Worden said. “The WTA under Steve Simon has shown that sports federations must stand with athletes and uphold human rights. They have to put the needs of athletes over so-called business partnerships; it’s not a partnership if an athlete is an effective hostage.”
Sophie Richardson, the organization’s China Director who has researched human rights issues in the country for the group since 2006, wondered how human rights in China might be different had other governing bodies taken a similar position amid the country’s rising crackdown on dissidents and ethnic minorities under President Xi Jinping.
“If more companies had done this? If the IOC had done this? If governments had said, ‘Enough!’ … would 1 million Uyghurs have been spared?” Richardson asked. “Would Peng Shuai have had a chance to have a day in a legal court rather than just a tennis court? It is extraordinary to watch a body that has a real stake — real money and a real reputation — put the well-being of human beings across China at the center of their considerations and ahead of their profit. It’s so rare that anybody does this.”
Tennis icon Martina Navratilova hailed the WTA’s decision as bold, courageous and a lesson for politicians and governing bodies around the world.
“This is putting principle before money, and that just doesn’t happen anymore these days,” said Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion. “I’m so proud of Steve, so proud of the WTA and so proud to be a part of it. The IOC sucks, and you can quote me on that. [Peng] is a three-time Olympian, and they have been silent because they want to protect the Winter Olympics in two months. They’re protecting their pocketbooks.”
The Biden administration was weighing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics before Peng’s disappearance as a means of expressing disapproval of the government’s human rights abuses and ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities without affecting U.S. athletes.
Simon voiced admiration for the tennis communities in China and Hong Kong. He said he regretted “it has come to this point” but said China’s leaders had left the WTA with no choice.
“Unless China takes the steps we have asked for,” Simon wrote, “we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China.”
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