The US-based Women’s Tennis Association will suspend its tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong, raising tensions with Beijing over the handling of tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault against a former top Chinese official.
Steve Simon, chair and chief executive of the women’s professional tennis tour, said on Wednesday he had not received satisfactory assurances that Peng was “free, safe, and not subject to censorship”.
Peng publicly accused Zhang Gaoli, a former high-ranking Chinese Communist party member, of sexual assault in a post on social media platform Weibo on November 2, which was swiftly deleted.
The biggest stars in tennis, from Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, have expressed concern for Peng’s safety, with Djokovic backing threats by the WTA to cancel its matches in China.
Simon reiterated calls for “a full and transparent investigation” into Peng’s claims. “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,” he said.
In response, China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times, alleged that the WTA was “seriously coercing Peng”.
“Such coercion has deprived Peng of freedom of expression, forcing her to complain in accordance with the imagination and expectations of western public opinion, fabricating that she has lost her freedom . . . The message the WTA sent to her is that as long as she wants to satisfy the west, she will have to endorse the latter’s accusation against China,” the state-affiliated organisation wrote on Twitter.
The WTA organises more than 50 tournaments globally each year, about 10 of which take place in China, according to a spokesperson. In 2018, the tour signed a 10-year contract to host its marquee WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Its 2022 calendar has not been finalised.
The announcement comes just over two months before the start of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Late last month, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, hosted a video call with Peng. He said she was in Beijing and that the two planned to have dinner in the Chinese capital before the start of the Games.
It was the first evidence from an authority outside China of Peng’s whereabouts after the star disappeared from public view for several weeks after making her allegations.
The Global Times added that international sporting events, including tennis, that were scheduled to be held in China have been cancelled since the onset of the pandemic.
Chinese state media had previously released several videos of Peng as well as a statement that was allegedly written by the tennis star, which said she was “resting at home” and that the assault allegations were “not true”.
Simon did not mention the Olympics or Bach by name in a statement on Wednesday, but alluded to the risks of hosting athletic events in the region next year.
“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,” Simon said.
A spokesperson for the IOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The WTA’s decision to withdraw its tournaments from China stands in contrast with how other western organisations have reacted after stirring controversy in the country. Big multinationals from Mercedes-Benz to McDonald’s have issued apologies after offending or alienating Chinese consumers.
The US National Basketball Association faced broadcast blackouts and boycotts in China after then-Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey posted on Twitter in support of Hong Kong protesters in 2019. At the time, the league called Morey’s comments “regrettable” but said he had a right to free expression.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing