Peng Shuai has been put under blanket censorship after she made a sexual assault allegation against a former Chinese leader. Photo: Fred Lee/Getty Images
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has suspended its tournaments in China over Beijing’s silencing of tennis player Peng Shuai, demanding an investigation into her sexual assault allegation against a former leader of the ruling Communist Party.Peng, 35, alleged she was coerced into sex by former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, in a Nov. 2 post on microblogging site Weibo. Since then, censors have been working around the clock to wipe out mentions of her allegation, and a subsequent international outcry, from the Chinese internet.
In a Wednesday statement, Steve Simon, chairman and chief executive of the organizing body of women’s professional tennis, said the Chinese leadership has “left WTA with no choice” but to pull its events from China, including Hong Kong, citing its censorship and refusal to investigate the sexual assault case. “Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” Simon said. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”Chinese state media have tried to prove Peng’s safety by publishing recent images of Peng and a screenshot of her email to the WTA, in which she purportedly walked back her allegation of sexual assault. She also took part in a video call, along with a Chinese official at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with IOC president Thomas Bach, according to the IOC, which made no mention of the sexual assault allegation.But the WTA and Peng’s supporters are not convinced she is free to speak her own mind, given the persisting censorship around her, and have continued calling for a full investigation. “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,” Simon wrote in the latest statement.
“The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players,” he said. “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.”On Wednesday, men’s tennis world No.1 Novak Djokovic said he fully supported the WTA stance, calling the decision “very bold and very courageous.”The tennis community has been confronting Beijing as many other international companies, organizations, and celebrities tiptoe around the Communist Party’s political sensitivities to protect their business interests in the Chinese market. The WTA also has hundreds of millions of dollars to lose. In 2018, the WTA signed a 10-year deal to move its finals from Singapore to the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen. The inaugural WTA Finals Shenzhen in 2019 offered a singles champion prize money of $4.75 million, the biggest payout ever in men’s and women’s tennis. The WTA finals were held in Mexico this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and were originally scheduled to return to Shenzhen in 2022. In 2018, WTA chairman Simon said the deal “will easily be the largest and most significant WTA Finals deal in the 45 years since the WTA was founded and promises to take the event to a spectacular new level.” WTA founder Billie Jean King said the record prize money reflected “how Shenzhen and China have embraced women’s tennis.”
Now both of them are advocating to cut the lucrative business if Peng’s allegation is not looked into. Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.