The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, following weeks of a high-profile row with Beijing over the player’s wellbeing.
“With the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong,” said the WTA chairman, Steve Simon, announcing the decision in a statement on Wednesday.
“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. 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.”
The move marked a paradigm shift in how sports associations have dealt with China as the country becomes more assertive in its way of dealing with both domestic and international affairs. In the past, sports organisations have rapidly backed down from rows with Beijing for fear of losing its gigantic market.
The move was welcomed by world tennis figures who have been campaigning for Peng’s safety.
“I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world,” said Billie Jean King. “The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players. This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Novak Djokovic, World No 1 and cofounder of the Professional Tennis Players Association, said he fully supported the WTA’s stance, and everyone including the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was “asking for clarity on what is going on”.
“We don’t have enough information and I think it’s a very bold, very courageous stance from WTA,” he told reporters.
Martina Navratilova said it was a “brave stance”. “Now – what say you, IOC [International Olympic Committee] ?!?” she tweeted. “IOC – so far I can barely hear you!!!”
Early last month, 35-year-old Peng, a former doubles world No 1, used a post on Chinese social media website, Weibo to accuse 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice-premier, of having coerced her into sex . Her lengthy post was quickly deleted by the censors, and Peng disappeared from public for more than two weeks as the WTA and colleagues said they were unable to reach her.
On 17 November, China’s state-owned English-language news channel CGTN in a tweet alleged that Peng had written to Simon and reported that she had been “resting at home and everything is fine”. In the post, Peng also allegedly said that the news in Simon’s previous release, including the allegations of sexual assault, “is not true”.
But the tweet instead sparked further suspicion and transformed a #MeToo allegation into high-stakes international diplomacy. Fellow tennis stars including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have both tweeted in solidarity with Peng under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. Calls from human rights organisations to boycott the forthcoming Beijing winter Olympics have been on the rise.
Chinese state-affiliated media last month also released a series of videos and photos attempting to show Peng’s regular activity inside China. The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, later held a video call with Peng on 21 November. The organisation reported that Peng was “doing fine” and “appears to be relaxed”.
However, many dismissed the conversation as a “publicity stunt” and accused the IOC of attempting to appease China, drawing the organisation into the firing line. On 23 November, China’s foreign ministry accused unnamed people of “malicious hyping” in the case of the tennis star Peng Shuai, in a hardline and unrepentant response to questions in the west over her wellbeing.
“I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with the IOC president, [Thomas] Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation,” the Ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said.
But despite repeated assurances from Beijing, the WTA insisted that it remains “deeply concerned” about Peng. “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,” Simon wrote in his statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
The organisation, which in the past decade made huge investments into the Chinese market, has not held events inside the country since the Covid pandemic.
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