The Women’s Tennis Association suspended all tournaments in China on Wednesday in response to the alarming treatment of Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, whom the WTA has not been able to get in contact with directly since she accused a top Communist Party official of sexual assault earlier this month.
With other sports leagues bending to Chinese interests, on account of the nation’s increasingly important market share, the suspension comes as a major rebuke of the Chinese government’s efforts to erase Peng’s social media posts alleging that she was sexually assaulted by former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli at his home three years ago. After she came forward on November 2, she was not seen for more than a week; the only word from her at the time was a message relayed by a state broadcaster: “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.” The message described her initial allegation as false.
Ten days ago, as pressure continued to mount, the International Olympic Committee released pictures of a video call with Peng on November 20, the same day she appeared at a teens’-tennis final in Beijing. But it was not enough for the WTA. “While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon, said in a statement released Wednesday. Simon, who has called for an independent inquiry into the sexual-assault allegation, added that “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.” Women’s tournaments will also not be held in Hong Kong.
The suspension comes at a difficult time for Chinese sports, as the nation puts the finishing touches on preparations for the Beijing Winter Olympics, beginning in early February; in the video call with Peng, IOA officials did not mention her allegation, an apparent effort to avoid blowback ahead of the opening ceremony in two months. The WTA, meanwhile, could lose hundreds of millions of dollars for its decision: In 2019, the organization signed a ten-year deal to hold its season-finale tournament in Shenzen, in addition to eight other annual tournaments in China.