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When it comes to China, sports and entertainment often tread lightly

The case of Peng Shuai, shown in 2019, has drawn renewed attention to how prominent sports and entertainment entities deal with controversies related to China. (Wang He/Getty Images)
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The month-long saga surrounding Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has sparked a wide range of responses from stakeholders, foreign governments and observers seeking answers about the three-time Olympian’s well-being.

Following her Nov. 2 allegations of sexual assault by a former senior Chinese official, references to Peng; the accused official, Zhang Gaoli; and even the word “tennis” were scrubbed from the Chinese Internet, and Peng was not seen in public for more than two weeks. Her disappearance led to an international outcry, and her carefully curated reemergence in Chinese media raised further questions about her safety.

What you need to know about the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

Two major entities with ties to Peng and significant financial stakes in China — the Women’s Tennis Association and the International Olympic Committee — have drawn particularly significant attention for their divergent approaches to the crisis. The WTA on Wednesday announced that it is suspending all tournaments in China and Hong Kong, a move that could represent millions in lost revenue for the organization. The IOC, on the other hand, has taken a much softer stance, saying in a statement Thursday that it is employing “quiet diplomacy” to resolve the situation, which is playing out two months before the Winter Olympics are set to be held in Beijing in February.

It is the latest example of the sensitivity that organizations and individuals employ when navigating issues related to China, which has been sanctioned over its human rights abuses.

Here’s how other prominent sports and entertainment entities handled similar controversies:

Arsenal

Soccer star Mesut Özil’s difficulties with his former English Premier League club also started with a social media post, when in December 2019 he denounced China’s treatment of Uyghurs, a largely Muslim Turkic minority in the northwest region of the country.

Özil, a German Muslim who is of Turkish heritage, wrote: “[In China] Qurans are burned, mosques were closed down, Islamic theological schools, madrasas were banned, religious scholars were killed one by one. Despite all this, Muslims stay quiet.” It prompted a wave of pushback from Chinese officials, the Chinese Football Association and others. Arsenal distanced itself in a statement posted to social media platform Weibo and, by some accounts, Özil’s outspokenness led to his exclusion from video games, Chinese Internet searches and game broadcasts — after Chinese broadcast partners initially refused to air Arsenal matches.

Özil, who also refused to accept a pandemic-related pay cut last year, had not played for Arsenal since March 2020 when he was transferred in January to Turkish club Fenerbahce.

NBA

Then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey summoned a spate of apologies and a wave of criticism in October 2019 after he posted — then quickly deleted — a tweet in support of pro-democracy protests that swelled that summer that read: “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta distanced himself from Morey, tweeting that Morey “does NOT speak for” the franchise, and the team’s former star, James Harden, proclaimed, “We love China.” The NBA called Morey’s tweet and the subsequent offense “regrettable,” American politicians lambasted the league’s response, and Chinese sponsors and broadcast partners halted their relationship with the league.

Amid the fallout, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “There is no doubt the economic impact is already clear” and that “there have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet,” but he reiterated his support for Morey, who now is the president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers.

State-owned China Central Television has seldom broadcast NBA games since Morey’s tweet, according to reports. Tencent, which also streamed games to Chinese fans, resumed NBA broadcasts but barred Rockets games until January — two months after Morey joined Philadelphia, whose games reportedly remain blacklisted.

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FIFA

International soccer’s governing body was criticized for its 2019 decision to allow China to host its upcoming Club World Cup. Answering questions about China’s record of human rights violations, FIFA President Gianni Infantino told reporters: “Countries all over the world are going through difficult times. It is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world.”

NHL

Like many professional sports leagues, the NHL has sought to expand its reach into China, broadcasting games through a Chinese state-owned broadcaster and playing preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing in 2017 and 2018.

The league’s efforts coincided with a U.S.-China trade dispute that exacerbated relations as each government imposed tariffs on the other, but NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told CNBC in 2018 that he didn’t see those issues affecting the league’s work there.

“While we currently don’t anticipate [the trade war] hampering our continuing efforts to grow hockey in China, we also recognize there may be certain matters that are beyond our control,” he said.

A year later, when asked about the risks of expanding into China following the NBA’s upheaval and the country’s broader relationship with the United States, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told CNBC: “When you’re dealing in foreign countries, geopolitical issues can impact your business, and you have to be mindful of that. … To the extent we can do business internationally, we do it, and when there are impediments to it, we either pivot or choose another course. There are no hard and fast rules in terms of how you do it.”

“We rely on the good judgment of all of our on-ice and off-ice personnel to do what they think is sensible and responsible,” he added.

Activision Blizzard

California-based Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s largest esports companies, suspended Ng Wai Chung, a Hong Kong-based professional gamer, over his 2019 statement supporting pro-democracy protests in the city.

Following a match that October, Chung recited a protest slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” while wearing a gas mask and goggles. The company banned him from competing in digital card game Hearthstone for a year, forcing him to forfeit thousands in prize money. It also fired the commentators who conducted the interview.

Longtime players vowed to quit the game in protest of the punishments, and the company reportedly lost a sponsorship with Mitsubishi Motors before Chung and the commentators’ penalties were reduced.

Disney

Hollywood has long done business with China, hoping any controversies would quickly fade. Studios have been eager to secure production financing from Chinese interests and a coveted — and rare — distribution slot for their theatrical films.

Disney in particular has been cozy with government authorities, co-owning a Disneyland resort and theme park with state-owned entities in Shanghai, while blockbuster movies, such as “Iron Man 3,” were shot in China. Many of its films land distribution slots in China, a huge box-office market.

Activists last year urged a boycott over “Mulan,” Disney’s live-action reboot of the China-based action-adventure film, because the company shot scenes in the Xinjiang region, where experts believe many ethnic minorities, including the Uyghurs and Kazakhs, have been held in re-education camps. The movie also saw star Liu Yifei pledge support for Hong Kong police during protests in the city.

Disney did not publicly engage with the criticism and released the movie as planned. The company’s chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy, later defended the move by saying most of the film was shot outside the country. She acknowledged the matter “has generated a lot of issues for us.”

Netflix

Netflix pressed ahead with its Chinese co-production of science-fiction series “The Three-Body Problem” even after Republican lawmakers criticized the company for working with a creator allegedly sympathetic to the Beijing government’s controversial policies. The author, Liu Cixin, has made comments defending Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs. The company did release a statement, saying, “We do not agree with his comments, which are entirely unrelated to his book or this Netflix show.”

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