The WTA is making good on its threat to pull its business out of China by announcing that it will suspend tournaments in both China and Hong Kong unless the Chinese authorities take steps to address Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual abuse and concerns for her welfare and freedom.
If we walk away from this, we are basically telling the world that not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness it requires is OK because it's difficult to do. It's something that we simply cannot allow to happen, and it's not where we stand for as an organisation. Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO
In a statement on Wednesday, Steve Simon, the WTA’s Chairman and CEO, 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 recognised 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.
“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.
“As a result, and 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.
“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.
“I have been gratified by the massive amount of international support the WTA has received for its position on this matter.
“To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out.
“The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications.
“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.
“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.”
Peng has been absent from social media since the scandal broke on 2 November, and has made only a few public appearances, with Chinese state media showing her at a dinner and a youth tennis tournament in Beijing two weeks ago.
In the most prominent appearance, she assured IOC President Thomas Bach during a video call that she was safe and well and she would see him in Beijing in January.
Over the past 15 years China has injected millions into developing tennis within the country after tennis was brought back into the Olympics in 1988, which was before Li Na’s breakthrough triggered a huge surge in interest.
Various cities such as Wuhan, Li Na’s birthplace, started to invest millions in facilities in order to stage major events and, as the years went by, China became instrumental in the financial stability of the WTA, which has relied heavily on Chinese investment in its tour in recent years, leading to a number of lucrative tournaments being held in the country.
In 2019, China hosted 9 WTA Tour events with total prize money topping $30 million, and the WTA had planned 11 events in China this year before COVID-19 forced them to be relocated or cancelled.
Speaking to CNN on Wednesday night, Simon called the matter ‘something we can’t walk away from’.
“If we walk away from this, we are basically telling the world that not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness it requires is OK because it’s difficult to do,” he said.
“”It’s something that we simply cannot allow to happen, and it’s not where we stand for as an organisation.
“I can only imagine the range of emotions, and feelings, that are likely going through Peng right now. We hope that she feels that none of this is her fault, we are very proud of her.”
The WTA’s decision to pull out of China was applauded by some of the biggest names in women’s tennis, many of whom have previously voiced concerns for Peng’s safety and whereabouts on Twitter, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Billie Jean King praised the WTA decision on Twitter: “… for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world.
“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players. This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Martina Navratilova also weighed in noting the apparent silence of the IOC ahead of next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics: “This is a brave stance by Steve Simon and the WTA where we put principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and particularly for Peng Shuai. Now – what say you, @IOC ?!? #IOC – so far I can barely hear you!!!”
Peng said she was ‘safe and well’ during a video call with Bach, but the WTA said this was ‘insufficient evidence’ of Peng’s safety, and the fact that Zhang was at one stage the leader of a State Council working group overseeing Beijing 2022 preparations and has been pictured with the IOC President, only leads to further questions over the organisation’s impartiality.
Human rights groups were calling for the Winter Olympics and Paralympics to be moved from China even before the Peng case shone a new light on the Government’s intolerance of dissent.
Novak Djokovic, in Madrid for the Davis Cup finals, has also backed what he called a ‘very bold and very courageous’ move.
“I support fully the WTA’s stance because we don’t have enough information about Peng Shuai and her well-being,” Djokovic said, adding that her health was of the ‘utmost importance to the world of tennis’.
The ITF said in a statement to AFP: “The WTA has stood firm and true to its values from the start and we understand their decision. We will continue to closely monitor the situation.”
As the controversy simmered, the European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Britain all have called for proof of Peng’s whereabouts and well-being.
Simon said he was ‘gratified by the international support the WTA had received for its position’.
“To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out,” he said.
During Peng Shuai’s heyday as the No 1 doubles player in the world, Chinese state media referred to her as a ‘golden flower’ but has been completely silent after the WTA suspended events in the world’s second-biggest economy.
The silence is in complete contrast with state-backed condemnations of other companies that have spoke out about human rights concerns in China, including Hennes & Mauritz AB earlier this year, probably because Peng’s accusations are against one of their own, retired official Zhang Gaoli, once the seventh most-powerful man in the country.
China’s censors scrubbed Peng’s post on 2 November from her verified Weibo account, although screen shots were circulated, after which the player disappeared for weeks, prompting leading top players, the White House, the EU and UN to raise concerns about her safety.
Tennis has rapidly grown in popularity in China over the past few decades, thanks in part to the success of Li Na, who in 2011 became Asia’s first Grand Slam singles champion when she won the French Open, followed by a second major title at the 2014 Australian Open.
In recent years, the WTA has made a big push into China and, in 2019, the WTA Finals relocated from Singapore to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, entering into a lengthy ten-year deal including its season-ending championships.
In an interview with the New York Times from 2018, Simon described the arrangement with authorities in Shenzhen, which reportedly includes the construction of a new multimillion dollar tennis stadium, as a ‘huge opportunity’ for women’s tennis in China.
“When you factor in the commitment to prize money and the commitments to the WTA, and you factor in the stadium build and real-estate elements, it’s over a $1 billion dollar commitment they have made to the WTA Finals and the WTA,” Simon was quoted as saying.
While the Chinese authorities have yet to respond to the WTA’s decision to pull out of China, the WTA’s account on Weibo, China’s heavily censored version of Twitter, is still up and has over 400,000 followers but does not have Simon’s statement posted on it.
Some Weibo users voiced support for the WTA’s decision in comments under the association’s old posts in the early hours of Thursday, but these were soon censored.
The WTA’s stance and reference to the risk of holding events in China in 2022 will add pressure on the IOC, which is running the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February, as the threat of diplomatic boycotts loom.
When the threat came from the WTA, few were convinced that the organisation would conduct one of the most significant moves in its history by pulling its business with China.
Now the question is whether the ATP and/or the ITF will follow suit.