By Ben Morse and Nectar Gan, CNN
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced an immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to Beijing’s silencing of sexual assault allegations made by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai against a former top Communist Party official.
In a statement released Wednesday, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said the decision was based on the “unacceptable” response of Chinese officials in the #MeToo scandal, including rushing to censor Peng’s allegations and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation.
“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 said.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
One of China’s most recognizable sports stars, Peng publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home three years ago in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
Peng was immediately muffled by blanket censorship and disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the women tennis’ world to demand answers as to her whereabouts — as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Amid growing global outcry, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a number of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” Simon said.
“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. 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.”
Responding to a question about the WTA’s withdrawal at a news conference Thursday, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “China has always been firmly opposed to any act that politicizes sports.”
The spokesperson refused to provide further comments, saying: “We already answered relevant questions.”
The WTA’s announcement makes good on a threat Simon made on November 18, when he told CNN he was willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in China if Peng was not fully accounted for and her allegations were not properly investigated.
“I can only imagine the range of emotions, and feelings, that are likely going through Peng right now. We hope that she feels that none of this is her fault, we are very proud of her,” Simon said in an interview with CNN Wednesday, following the newest WTA statement.
“But this is something we can’t walk away from. If we walk away from this, we’re basically telling the world, that not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness it requires is OK,” he said. “It’s something that we simply cannot allow to happen, and it’s not where we stand for as an organization.”
WTA’s decision to pull out of China was applauded Wednesday by some biggest names in women’s tennis, many of whom have previously voiced concerns for Peng’s safety and whereabouts on Twitter, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
International Tennis Hall of Fame Billie Jean King praised the WTA decision “for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world.”
“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players,” Jean said in a statement, adding: “This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam winner, also weighed in noting the apparent silence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.
“This is a brave stance by Steve Simon and the WTA where we put principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and particularly for Peng Shuai. Now – what say you, @IOC ?!? #IOC – so far I can barely hear you!!!” said Navratilova in a statement posted online.
On November 21, the IOC said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, held a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng, alongside a Chinese sports official and an additional IOC representative.
The statement said that, during the call, Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and was “relaxed,” saying she “would like to have her privacy respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng was organized and has not made the video publicly available.
Longtime IOC member Dick Pound said the “unanimous conclusion” by those on a call with Peng is that she is fine, adding he has been “puzzled” by the international reaction to the call.
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang — who has faded from public life since his retirement in 2018 — and there is no indication an investigation is underway. It remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police.
Late last month, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the government hoped “malicious speculation” regarding Peng’s well-being and whereabouts would stop, adding that her case should not be politicized.
The WTA’s statement is not posted on its official account on Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter.
The association’s account — which has more than 400,000 followers — is still up on Weibo, but it has been blocked from search results. Some Weibo users voiced support for the WTA’s decision in comments under the association’s old posts in the early hours of Thursday, but they were soon censored. By Thursday afternoon, the comment sections of its two most recent posts had been disabled.
The WTA’s withdrawal was not reported by domestic media in China, where censors are still closely monitoring — and deleting — all discussions of and allusions to Peng’s allegations.
On Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run nationalist tabloid Global Times, accused the WTA of using Peng to attack China.
“WTA is coercing Peng Shuai to support the West’s attack on Chinese system. They are depriving Peng Shuai’s freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation,” Hu tweeted.
Later on Thursday, the Global Times posted an “editorial” on Twitter, accusing the WTA of “expanding its influence in a speculative way, bringing politics into women’s tennis deeply, setting a bad example for the entire sporting world.”
The “editorial” was not posted on the newspaper’s own website, or its Chinese social media accounts.
In a subsequent tweet, the Global Times said the Chinese Tennis Association had expressed “indignation and firm opposition” to the WTA’s decision. CNN has reached out to the Chinese Tennis Association for comment.
Tennis’ popularity in China has grown rapidly over the past few decades, with several Chinese players breaking into the global rankings. The women’s game, in particular, is a big market, thanks in part to the success of Chinese tennis star Li Na, who in 2011 became Asia’s first grand slam singles tennis champion when she won the French Open, followed by a second major title at the 2014 Australian Open.
In recent years, the WTA has made a big push into China. In 2019, the WTA Finals relocated from Singapore to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, entering into a lengthy ten-year deal.
In an interview with the New York Times from 2018, Simon described the arrangement with authorities in Shenzhen, which reportedly includes the construction of a new multimillion dollar tennis stadium, as a “huge opportunity” for women’s tennis in China.
“When you factor in the commitment to prize money and the commitments to the WTA, and you factor in the stadium build and real-estate elements, it’s over a $1 billion dollar commitment they have made to the WTA Finals and the WTA,” Simon was quoted as saying.
There have been no WTA events in China for the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The WTA has yet to release the 2022 event calendar, but on average the professional tennis tour has held about 10 tournaments each year in China, including the season-ending WTA Finals.
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