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Diplomatic waves in the wake of Peng Shuai 

The Peng Shuai affair continues to ripple across the media, with reports of Australia joining the growing list of countries considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing as a protest of China’s alleged human rights abuses.

Our support in the Asia-Pacific region, especially China, has seen a rich history of growth and talent. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO

Speculation continues to surround Peng, whose freedom and welfare remains a concern after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official, of sexually assaulting her.

Peng claimed Zhang, a former senior vice-premier and high-ranking member of the ruling CCP, sexually abused her 10 years ago and that they had an on-off extra-marital affair since the coercive incident.

The allegations were made in a post on social media platform Weibo on 2 November, but were taken down within 20 minutes.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that there are growing number of Australian politicians in Canberra calling for not sending any Government officials to Beijing 2022, which would not affect the ability of Australian athletes to compete in the Games but would send a strong message to China.

If Australia decides not to send its Government officials, it will join the United States, Britain, Canada and Lithuania in protesting against China’s alleged human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in its far-western Xinjiang region.

International concern has also mounted over the safety of Peng, a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, after her social media post claimed she had an extra-marital affair with Zhang when he was a top party official in Tianjin.

Several countries have voiced worries that she is being detained by Chinese authorities, despite photos and videos shared by Chinese state media purporting to show Peng happy and well over the last weekend, as well as a 30-minute video call between Peng and IOC President Thomas Bach on Sunday.

“China has always firmly opposed any words and deeds that politicise sports and go against the spirit of the Olympic Charter,” Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said during a press briefing.

China is Australia’s largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, accounting for 31 per cent of Australia’s trade with the world, but relations between the two countries have deteriorated sharply since the Australian Government called for an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak in Chinese city Wuhan last year.

Retaliation from China included targeting multiple Australian goods with trade sanctions.

Criticism is also being levelled at Bach, who was joined on his 30-minute Zoom call with Peng by IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Emma Terho and Li Lingwei, a former badminton player, IOC member and Chinese politician, for not addressing the abuse allegations, and not releasing a video of the conversation.

It has also been shown that Zhang was the leader of a State Council working group overseeing Beijing 2022 preparations, and would therefore had many dealings with Bach.

The links were first highlighted by Jack Hazelwood on Twitter, who produced an image of the leading CCP official with Bach and questioned whether there was a conflict of interest here.

The IOC’s response to the concerns over Peng were also strongly criticised from some quarters, especially the fact its statement on Bach’s call made no mention of the sexual assault allegations, and came after it said it would pursue ‘quiet diplomacy’ rather than comment on the case.

Speaking to Reuters, Alkan Akad, China’s researcher for Amnesty International, claimed the IOC was entering ‘dangerous waters’.

“In the past, we have seen various similar cases where people had no option but to say what they had been told to,” said Akad.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, reportedly claimed Amnesty held ‘anti-China’ views, adding: “This is not a diplomatic matter.

“I believe everyone will have seen she [Peng] has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with IOC President Bach.

“I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation.”

The IOC’s decision to participate in Beijing’s charade also invited broad criticism.

Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch said: “The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault.”


CEO and Chairman of the WTA Steve Simon delivering a speech at the 2019 WTA Finals in Shenzhen, China

© Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Steve Simon of the WTA said the IOC’s video call, which was not released to the public, neither addressed nor alleviated their concerns about Peng, and reiterated the WTA’s call for a complete investigation into Peng’s accusation.

The European Union was also unconvinced and an EU spokesperson called for ‘independent and verifiable proof’ of Peng’s safety.

MEP Reinhard Bütikofer added that Peng’s disappearance added ‘another argument in favour of the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics’, while others noted that Bach had a personal relationship with the accused, Zhang, who led the steering group that supervised preparations for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Xinhua News Agency, or New China News Agency, the official state-run press agency of the CCP deleted reports on Zhang’s work on the Games from its website, although they remain up on the State Council’s website.

Last week, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon threatened to pull out of all 2022 tour events due to be hosted in China, should independent and undeniable evidence of Peng’s whereabouts and well-being not be provided.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed US President Joe Biden is ‘deeply concerned’ with the situation and wants China to ‘provide independent, verifiable proof’ that Peng is well.

Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department, said China had ‘a zero-tolerance approach for criticism and a record of silencing or attempting to silence those who do attempt to speak out’.

“We share the concern that has been expressed around the world as we all want her [Peng], of course, to be safe,” added Price.

French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told Reuters the country was ‘partly reassured’ by the video of Peng but remained ‘concerned’ and wanted the ‘light to be shed on the accusations of sexual assault’.

Interestingly, earlier in her career, Peng caused a stir when she resigned from the Chinese Tennis Federation, upset with the way the CTA was dictating her playing schedule and telling her what tournaments she could play while assigning her coaches without her input.

There was some ugly PR backlash from the CTA, who were forced to back off after an Internet campaign supporting Peng’s decision.

The fact that, now, Peng would write a carefully crafted 1,000-word exposé of sexual assault and then promptly renounce it, remains in many minds as simply not plausible on so many levels, not least of which is  that this is out of character.

Several years ago, the WTA committed itself to China, and even has a dedicated office in Beijing, viewing the country as an opportunity for women’s sports, with unprecedented investment and increased prize money availability.

It is estimated that a break with China would cost the WTA Tour, which is now significantly reliant on Chinese sponsorship, more than a billion dollars in revenue but, if any lessons have been learned from the pandemic, it is that there are plenty of international takers out there wishing to climb onto the women’s tennis bandwagon.

The WTA would take a financial hit for leaving China, but other markets will emerge and help make up the shortfall, but while there is optimism over new markets, some of which have already been tested this year, the returns would certainly prove to be far smaller in the short term.

More importantly, perhaps, is that there are six Chinese women currently ranked inside the top 200 and there must be concern at the WTA over their future welfare.

Before the Peng situation arose, Simon was optimistic about the WTA Tour’s return to China in 2022 and the WTA Tour Finals, which were held in Mexico this year due to Covid-19, saying that the organisation is contracted to Shenzhen until 2030.

“Our support in the Asia-Pacific region, especially China, has seen a rich history of growth and talent,” Simon told the Tennis Majors website in October.

As the diplomatic fur flies over on-going concerns for Peng, it appears it will be business as usual with China for other organisations, with the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, and the ATP Tour looking to host major tournaments in October when sporting events are allowed back in China post the pandemic.

The Australian Open fashions itself as the Asian Grand Slam and is broadcast in the Asia-Pacific region on five television networks in China, including national broadcaster CCTV, provincial networks Beijing TV, Shanghai Dragon TV and Guangdong TV as well as English language Star Sports, and online on iQIYI Sports.

In short, there are too many eggs in the China basket for the sport to simply walk away.

It seems that many players have little use for China, though, and don’t like playing there in front of empty seats, the air quality, and the long commutes, so they probably would take a cut in prize money to play in Guadalajara or in Europe rather than in Shenzhen.

That China has provided opportunity to make women’s tennis the most lucrative of female sports is clear, but the authoritarian regime, censorship, rejection of both women’s and human rights, and lack of democracy place the WTA in a precarious position because it cannot do business where its players are not safe.

Several other prominent #MeToo cases in China’s business and academic circles have resulted in police investigations and trials, but Peng’s allegations are the first against such a high-level official and it remains to be seen what the CCP will do investigating one of its own.

Within China, Peng’s return has been cryptic, with nearly all mention of her allegations against Zhang remaining under official blackout and while some photos of her surfaced without explanation on domestic websites over the weekend, such as the China Open posting close-up shots of Peng at a youth tennis event without mentioning her name, it remains impossible to post a message on Weibo containing both Peng’s and Zhang’s names, with a pop-up message saying the operation is not possible because it is ‘a violation of relevant laws and regulations’.

In some corners of the Chinese internet, users made cautious comments about her return on Monday: “Hope that a thorough investigation will give the people an explanation,” one reader remarked.


A waitress is seen at the Beijing Yibin Guesthouse, a restaurant owned by the Sichuan local government, purportedly recently visited by Peng Shuai and posted online by Chinese media

© Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

The IOC’s decision to participate in Beijing’s charade also invited broad criticism.

Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch said: “The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault.”

Steve Simon of the WTA said the IOC’s video call, which was not released to the public, neither addressed nor alleviated their concerns about Peng, and reiterated the WTA’s call for a complete investigation into Peng’s accusation.

The European Union was also unconvinced and an EU spokesperson called for ‘independent and verifiable proof’ of Peng’s safety.

MEP Reinhard Bütikofer added that Peng’s disappearance added ‘another argument in favour of the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics’, while others noted that Bach had a personal relationship with the accused, Zhang, who led the steering group that supervised preparations for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Xinhua News Agency, or New China News Agency, the official state-run press agency of the CCP deleted reports on Zhang’s work on the Games from its website, although they remain up on the State Council’s website.

Last week, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon threatened to pull out of all 2022 tour events due to be hosted in China, should independent and undeniable evidence of Peng’s whereabouts and well-being not be provided.

Meanwhile, White House press secretary Jen Psaki claimed US President Joe Biden is ‘deeply concerned’ with the situation and wants China to ‘provide independent, verifiable proof’ that Peng is well.

Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department, said China had ‘a zero-tolerance approach for criticism and a record of silencing or attempting to silence those who do attempt to speak out’.

“We share the concern that has been expressed around the world as we all want her [Peng], of course, to be safe,” added Price.

French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu told Reuters the country was ‘partly reassured’ by the video of Peng but remained ‘concerned’ and wanted the ‘light to be shed on the accusations of sexual assault’.

Interestingly, earlier in her career, Peng caused a stir when she resigned from the Chinese Tennis Federation, upset with the way the CTA was dictating her playing schedule and telling her what tournaments she could play while assigning her coaches without her input.

There was some ugly PR backlash from the CTA, who were forced to back off after an Internet campaign supporting Peng’s decision.

The fact that, now, Peng would write a carefully crafted 1,000-word exposé of sexual assault and then promptly renounce it, remains in many minds as simply not plausible on so many levels, not least of which is  that this is out of character.


Naomi Osaka (L) poses with the winner's trophy after her victory against Ashleigh Barty (R) at the China Open in Beijing in 2019

© Leo Ramirez/AFP via Getty Images

Several years ago, the WTA committed itself to China, and even has a dedicated office in Beijing, viewing the country as an opportunity for women’s sports, with unprecedented investment and increased prize money availability.

It is estimated that a break with China would cost the WTA Tour, which is now significantly reliant on Chinese sponsorship, more than a billion dollars in revenue but, if any lessons have been learned from the pandemic, it is that there are plenty of international takers out there wishing to climb onto the women’s tennis bandwagon.

The WTA would take a financial hit for leaving China, but other markets will emerge and help make up the shortfall, but while there is optimism over new markets, some of which have already been tested this year, the returns would certainly prove to be far smaller in the short term.

More importantly, perhaps, is that there are six Chinese women currently ranked inside the top 200 and there must be concern at the WTA over their future welfare.

Before the Peng situation arose, Simon was optimistic about the WTA Tour’s return to China in 2022 and the WTA Tour Finals, which were held in Mexico this year due to Covid-19, saying that the organisation is contracted to Shenzhen until 2030.

“Our support in the Asia-Pacific region, especially China, has seen a rich history of growth and talent,” Simon told the Tennis Majors website in October.

As the diplomatic fur flies over on-going concerns for Peng, it appears it will be business as usual with China for other organisations, with the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, and the ATP Tour looking to host major tournaments in October when sporting events are allowed back in China post the pandemic.

The Australian Open fashions itself as the Asian Grand Slam and is broadcast in the Asia-Pacific region on five television networks in China, including national broadcaster CCTV, provincial networks Beijing TV, Shanghai Dragon TV and Guangdong TV as well as English language Star Sports, and online on iQIYI Sports.

In short, there are too many eggs in the China basket for the sport to simply walk away.

It seems that many players have little use for China, though, and don’t like playing there in front of empty seats, the air quality, and the long commutes, so they probably would take a cut in prize money to play in Guadalajara or in Europe rather than in Shenzhen.

That China has provided opportunity to make women’s tennis the most lucrative of female sports is clear, but the authoritarian regime, censorship, rejection of both women’s and human rights, and lack of democracy place the WTA in a precarious position because it cannot do business where its players are not safe.

Several other prominent #MeToo cases in China’s business and academic circles have resulted in police investigations and trials, but Peng’s allegations are the first against such a high-level official and it remains to be seen what the CCP will do investigating one of its own.

Within China, Peng’s return has been cryptic, with nearly all mention of her allegations against Zhang remaining under official blackout and while some photos of her surfaced without explanation on domestic websites over the weekend, such as the China Open posting close-up shots of Peng at a youth tennis event without mentioning her name, it remains impossible to post a message on Weibo containing both Peng’s and Zhang’s names, with a pop-up message saying the operation is not possible because it is ‘a violation of relevant laws and regulations’.

In some corners of the Chinese internet, users made cautious comments about her return on Monday: “Hope that a thorough investigation will give the people an explanation,” one reader remarked.



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