The head of the Women’s Tennis Association has threatened to pull tournaments worth hundreds of millions of dollars from China if tennis player Peng Shuai is not accounted for and her allegations of sexual assault fully investigated.
Speaking to CNN on Thursday, WTA chairman Steve Simon said “we’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it, because this is bigger than the business.”
"We're definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it, because this is bigger than the business." -Women's Tennis Association chairman Steve Simon on threatening to pull out of China over a missing tennis star https://t.co/gZVVzz7mth pic.twitter.com/Wvpl8jnlOj— OutFrontCNN (@OutFrontCNN) November 19, 2021
“There’s too many times in our world today when we get into issues like this that we let business, politics, money dictate what’s right and what’s wrong,” Mr. Simon said. “If anyone wants to question our fortitude … they can certainly try to.”
Earlier this month, Ms. Peng publicly accused China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. Mr. Zhang, 75, was a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee before he resigned from public office in 2018.
Since she posted her account on social media, Ms. Peng, 35, has not been seen in public and her current whereabouts are unknown.
The WTA, tennis stars and Chinese human rights groups have been demanding that Ms. Peng’s whereabouts and current condition be made public. On Sunday, Mr. Simon said the WTA felt “deep concern” over Ms. Peng’s allegations and demanded they be “investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.”
The drama escalated on Wednesday when Chinese state media released a letter purportedly written by Ms. Peng to Mr. Simon, saying the tennis executive’s statement had “not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent.”
“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true,” the letter said, according to state broadcaster CGTN. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”
Mr. Simon immediately cast doubt on the veracity of the letter, which attracted widespread outrage online, with many saying it was fake.
When he received the email, Mr. Simon said he struggled to believe it, given how it contradicted Ms. Peng’s previous statements, in which she had raised the possibility that she might face repercussions or punishment.
“When I saw it come out on Chinese state media it became very clear to us that this was a staged statement of some type, whether coerced into writing it or someone wrote it for her,” he said. “At this point I don’t think there is any validity to it.”
Mr. Simon said that the WTA has had “direct communication with the Chinese Tennis Association, they have assured us she’s fine and not in any danger,” but that “we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her directly and make sure she knows we are worried about her and have the ability to provide support to whatever level she wants.”
The allegations made by Ms. Peng against Mr. Zhang have not been reported inside China, and the letter published by state media was only done so on social media services blocked by the Great Firewall. Censorship remains intense, with even mention of tennis players like Naomi Osaka who have spoken out in support of Ms. Peng tightly controlled. CNN said that when Ms. Peng’s case is being discussed on air, the broadcaster’s feed in China is blacked out.
Speaking to reporters at a daily press conference Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian refused to comment, saying it was “not a diplomatic issue.” The question, like similar questions earlier in the week, was not included in an official transcript released by the foreign ministry.
While not speaking out directly against the Chinese state, even taking on the country’s propaganda organs in such a public way risks a backlash that could cost the WTA millions. In 2019, broadcasts of the NBA were temporarily dropped by Chinese state media after Daryl Morey, then an executive with the Houston Rockets, tweeted support for ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Last month, Boston Celtics games were pulled from the Chinese internet after one of the team’s players, Enes Kanter, accused President Xi Jinping of being a “brutal dictator” and voiced support for Tibetan and Uyghur movements.
The WTA currently has 10 events scheduled to be held in China, and the country is due to host the WTA finals through until 2028, in what has been described as a billion-dollar deal. China has also been a major growth target for world tennis bodies, as the popularity of the sport has grown with the success of stars like Li Na and Ms. Peng, a former doubles No. 1.
Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, said that while the CGTN letter appeared clumsy and even sinister to many observers, it was not necessarily intended to convince anyone.
“Rather, messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power: ‘We are telling you that she is fine, and who are you to say otherwise?’ It’s not meant to convince people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state,” she wrote on Twitter.
“On the one hand, propaganda organs assuming that this power of intimidation will work so far removed from the immediate reach of the Chinese state could count as incompetence. On the other hand, the reactions of Western governments and businesses to previous similar incidents has likely encouraged them to think it very well might work.”
In the interview Thursday, Mr. Simon said he was well aware of the potential repercussions.
“We’re at a crossroads in our relationship with China and operating our business over there,” he said. “But when we have a young person who has the fortitude to step up and make these allegations knowing full well what the results of that are going to be, for us to not support that and demand justice as we go through it…”
“We have to start as a world making decisions that are based on right and wrong, and we can’t compromise that.”
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