The US-based Women’s Tennis Association says it will suspend its tournaments in China, raising tensions with Beijing over the handling of tennis star Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault against a former top Chinese official.
Steve Simon, chair and chief executive of the women’s professional tennis tour, said on Wednesday he has not received satisfactory assurances that Peng is “free, safe, and not subject to censorship” since she publicly accused Zhang Gaoli, a former high-ranking Chinese Communist party member, of sexual assault in a post on social media platform Weibo on November 2, which was swiftly deleted.
The biggest stars in tennis, from Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, have all expressed concern for Peng’s safety, with Djokovic backing earlier threats by the WTA to pull its matches from China.
Simon reiterated calls for “a full and transparent investigation” into Peng’s claims while suspending WTA tournaments in the region, including events in Hong Kong.
“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”, he said.
The WTA organises more than 50 tournaments globally each year, about 10 of which take place in China, according to a spokeswoman. In 2018, the tour signed a 10-year contract to host its marquee WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Its 2022 calendar has not yet been finalised.
The announcement comes just over two months before the start of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Late last month, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, hosted a video call with Peng, and said she was in Beijing and that the two planned to have dinner in the Chinese capital before the start of the Games.
It was the first evidence from an authority outside China of the whereabouts of Peng, who had disappeared for several weeks from public view after making her allegations.
Chinese state media had also released several videos of Peng, as well as a statement it said was written by the tennis star, which said she was “resting at home” and that the assault allegations were “not true”.
Simon did not mention the Olympics or Bach by name in a statement on Wednesday, but alluded to risks of hosting athletic events in the region next year.
“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,” Simon said.
A spokesman for the IOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The move by the WTA to withdraw its tournaments from China stands in contrast with how other western organisations have reacted after stirring controversy in the region. Large multinationals from Mercedes-Benz to McDonald’s have issued apologies after offending or alienating Chinese consumers.
The US National Basketball Association faced broadcast blackouts and boycotts in China after then-Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted support of Hong Kong protesters in 2019. At the time, the league called Morey’s comments “regrettable” but said he had a right to free expression.