WTA Officially Pulls Out of China Over Peng Shuai Disappearance

By Alina Wang | December 1, 2021
Alina Wang writes China news for Vision Times.
207
peng_shuai_tennis-star_black_background_orange_shirt_GettyImages-107870575
Peng Shuai of China serves during her match against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia on day three of the ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre on January 5, 2011 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Image: Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has decided to end all tournaments in China over concerns surrounding Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose safety has been in doubt since she accused a former regime leader of sexual assault. 

WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said in a statement released today that with the “full support of the WTA Board of Directors,” all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, would be suspended immediately. 

The statement stated that he “could not allow in good conscience for other athletes to compete [in China] when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.”

Peng Shuai first came forward on Nov. 2 alleging that she had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who also served on the Chinese Communist Party’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee. The PSC is the Party’s most powerful leading body.

Peng described on her verified Weibo account that she had agreed to a consensual affair with the former top official around a decade ago. However, three years ago, when Zhang was retired, he allegedly invited her to his home and pressured her into sex.

“I never consented that afternoon, I was crying all the time,” she wrote. The tennis star said she then reluctantly agreed to continue the affair with him, but was angered when Zhang insisted on it being kept secret.

The post was quickly removed around 10 minutes after being posted and Peng’s account was disabled. Even the word “tennis” was blocked across social media platforms, showing the tight level of control the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) applies to its highly censored internet.

Dubious assurances

After not being heard from since going public with her allegations against Zhang, an email allegedly written by Peng was released on Nov. 18 by Communist Party-run broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN). The email claimed that she was fine and was just resting at home. Doubts were immediately cast over the authenticity of the email and concerns raised over Peng’s safety and wellbeing. 

On Nov. 17, CGTN also published on its Twitter account what it claimed to be a copy of an email written by Peng addressing WTA Chairman Steve Simon. The statement recanted her sexual assault allegations against the 75-year-old retired official: “… the allegation of sexual assault, is not true.”

In response to what many believe to be a fabricated email, Simon said that “the statement released by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” adding that “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.”

​​Simon further elaborated, “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.” 

The Sport & Rights Alliance praised the WTA’s decision to end all tournaments in China and has called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take a similar stance on the matter. With the Beijing Winter Olympics scheduled to begin in just two months in February, 2022, many activists have called for the cancellation or postponement of the Games over human rights concerns.

President Joe Biden told reporters on Nov. 18 that the U.S. is also considering a diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics citing reports of human rights abuse in China.

“The IOC’s eagerness to ignore the voice of an Olympian who may be in danger and to support claims of state-sponsored media in China shows the urgent and critical need for an IOC human rights strategy in close consultation with affected stakeholders, placing athletes at the center,” Andrea Florence, the acting director of the Sport & Rights Alliance, said in a statement released on Dec. 1.