Before the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai went missing on November 2, the most notable sources of tension between Western sports leagues and China usually ended with those leagues doing their best not to offend the rising superpower.
In December 2019, after former Arsenal footballer Mesut Özil tweeted about the country’s inhumane treatment of the Uighurs, the club quickly released a statement reminding everyone that the club had always “adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.” (Though it has seemed perfectly fine with publicly supporting other political causes.) Nevertheless, within two days of the tweet, a Chinese state-run TV network pulled an Arsenal match from its schedule. They were eventually allowed back on the network, but no commentator would say Özil’s name out loud — and his name and image all but vanished from the country. When Özil was left off Arsenal’s Premier League and Europa League teams last year, some speculated that his China infraction was part of the reason why.
In the U.S., it’s the NBA that has most vividly experienced the consequences of crossing China. Two months before Özil spoke out, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted (and later deleted) his support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The NBA released a statement explaining that while the league recognized different countries would have different viewpoints on political matters, ultimately, it was “not the role of the NBA to adjudicate those differences.” A few days later, Morey tried to clean up his remarks. But the damage — and it was a lot of damage — was done. By January of 2020, the NBA was on track to lose up to $400 million in revenue as a result of the tweet, as Chinese business partners abandoned deals with the league.
In October of this year, Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter posted a video to Twitter in which he spoke for nearly three minutes in support of Tibetan independence, calling Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator.” Tencent, one of China’s largest technology companies and streaming platforms, swiftly pulled the live broadcast of the Celtics–Knicks game off the air, and removed all replays of Celtics games from the platform. After considerable backlash over its handling of Morey’s tweet, the NBA has chosen not to publicly cave this time, and Kanter says Commissioner Adam Silver has expressed support for his views — in private. Still, the NBA has not made a statement defending Kanter’s speech, or suggesting that anything in their business relationship with China will actually change.
Of course, there is a critical difference between these players’ stories and that of Peng Shuai: None of them disappeared.
A brief summary of recent events: On November 2, Peng posted a lengthy message to the social-media platform Weibo describing how she’d been sexually assaulted by China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, 40 years her senior, three years earlier. Peng detailed the pain and confusion she experienced in their decade-long relationship, which at times had been consensual.
The post was deleted within the hour. Peng’s Weibo account disappeared. Internet searches within China for her name and “tennis” were blocked.
Suddenly, the Women’s Tennis Association, the organizing body of professional women’s tennis, was in uncharted waters. Peng wasn’t just associated with the organization; she was recently a fairly major star. In 2013, Peng was the first Chinese player to win the WTA Tour Championships. The next year, she and her doubles partner were ranked No. 1 in the world, making Peng the first Chinese tennis player of any gender to hold the top spot.
At first, the WTA took a familiar, cautious approach. The organization waited 12 days after Peng was first presumed missing to release a statement. When it finally did, on November 14, the WTA called for a comprehensive investigation into the allegations against Zhang, and for the end of censorship against Peng. Social-media users blasted the organization for taking nearly two weeks to speak out. But over the next few days, instead of slinking further into the background, or refusing to get involved in a political matter, the WTA doubled down in its efforts to intervene in China’s policies on transparency. And the narrative of sports leagues treading carefully with China took a dramatic turn.
When China state-affiliated media CGTN tweeted a copy of an email allegedly sent by Peng to Steve Simon, the head of the WTA, explaining that she was “fine and resting at home,” Simon was swift to respond, countering that the questionable email “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.” On social media, the WTA pressed on, joining in the #WhereisPengShuai movement with a tweeted photo of the star. Simon has said that the WTA was prepared to pull out of 2022 tournaments in China should Peng’s safety not be verified. Consider that in 2018, the WTA landed a ten-year partnership with China for Shenzhen to host the WTA tour finals each year, including a record-shattering $4.7 million prize for the 2019 champion. This is no small threat.
On November 21, the president of the International Olympics Committee, Thomas Bach, said he spoke with Peng in Beijing via video chat, and that she seemed relaxed and “wished for privacy.” No mention was made of the sexual-assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, Peng’s deleted social-media accounts, or why she hadn’t been heard from in 19 days. Apart from state media releasing a couple of videos of Peng out with friends — it could not be determined when they were shot — this was the closest the public had come to knowing if Peng was, in fact, okay. Bach has a major incentive to promote the “nothing to see here” line, with the Beijing Winter Olympics coming up in February.
The WTA didn’t budge. In an email to Reuters, a spokesperson for the WTA said that while they were glad to see photos of Peng, a video call with the IOC did not “alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.” Furthermore, they still wanted a “full, fair and transparent investigation” into Peng’s allegations.
Tennis players are effectively self-employed. They have access to health insurance and pension plans through the WTA, but these programs are voluntary, not mandatory. It is only once players are ranked in the top 250 that are they required to pay an annual fee. There is no legal mandate within the WTA in which the organization has to protect its players, or a structure guaranteeing players the safety and assurances of full-time employment. In this sense, Simon’s ongoing, insistent ownership of Peng, demand for her safety, and willingness to irrevocably risk millions of WTA business dollars for the cause is remarkable.
It also feels unavoidable. Up to this point, sports leagues could uncomfortably look the other way when it was only a matter of an individual criticizing the Chinese government, and being censored in return. The cost of complicit public silence on “political matters” would pale in comparison time and again to the profits lost by an organization pushing back. But for the WTA to not have taken a stand — to have stepped aside and let China’s state media continue sending out staged photos and phony reassurances on Peng’s whereabouts, to have shouldered the reputational fallout at the cost of preserving financial security as the world’s biggest tennis stars have made increasingly forceful statements about Peng’s plight — would have been more disastrous than any financial fallout. At least, that’s the calculation Steve Simon has made.
Yet even now, Simon is on a lonely path. The IOC is no stranger to overlooking human-rights abuses, but what about the NBA, Premier League, or ATP, the governing body of men’s tennis, which has not gone nearly as far as its counterpart? The tenuous status quo of how to deal with China seems more fragile than ever.
Should Peng resurface in the coming weeks, the WTA will have to decide on its course of action for 2022. Right now, it feels plausible that Steve Simon could actually steer the organization the way of LinkedIn, and out of China altogether. That would be a true inflection point, and one that has been a long time coming.