On Wednesday, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced that it is suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, as it remains unconvinced about the well-being of tennis star Peng Shuai.
In early November, Shuai accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo. Soon after, the post was taken down, and immediate concern grew over Shuai’s safety in her home country.
In his statement on Wednesday, WTA CEO Steve Simon said:
“When on November 2, 2021, Peng Shuai posted an allegation of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official, the Women’s Tennis Association recognized that Peng Shuai’s message had to be listened to and taken seriously. The players of the WTA, not to mention women around the world, deserve nothing less.
From that moment forward, Peng Shuai demonstrated the importance of speaking out, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, and especially when powerful people are involved. As Peng said in her post, “Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you." She knew the dangers she would face, yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage.
Since then, Peng’s message has been removed from the internet and discussion of this serious issue has been censored in China. Chinese officials have been provided the opportunity to cease this censorship, verifiably prove that Peng is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair and transparent manner. 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. The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation.”
In response to the WTA’s actions, the Global Times, the Chinese nationalist tabloid, on Twitter accused the WTA of “seriously coercing Peng”, saying:
“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 WTA has about 10 events in China scheduled a year, and in 2018, struck a deal to host the end-of-the-year championships in Shenzhen.
“I very much regret it has come to this point. The tennis communities in China and Hong Kong are full of great people with whom we have worked for many years. They should be proud of their achievements, hospitality and success,” Simon’s statement continues. “However, unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China. China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice. I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”