The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced an immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to Beijing’s silencing of sexual assault allegations made by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai against a former top Communist Party official.
In a statement released Wednesday, WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon said the decision was based on the “unacceptable” response of Chinese officials in the #MeToo scandal, including rushing to censor Peng’s allegations and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation.
“In good conscience, 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 said.
“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.”
One of China’s most recognizable sports stars, Peng publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home three years ago in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
Peng was immediately muffled by blanket censorship and disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the women tennis’ world to demand answers as to her whereabouts – as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Amid growing global outcry, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a number of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” Simon said.
“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. 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. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Responding to a question about the WTA’s withdrawal at a news conference Thursday, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said “China has always been firmly opposed to any act that politicizes sports.”
The spokesperson refused to provide further comments, saying: “We already answered relevant questions.”
The WTA’s announcement makes good on a threat Simon made on November 18, when he told CNN he was willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business in China if Peng was not fully accounted for and her allegations were not properly investigated.
“I can only imagine the range of emotions, and feelings, that are likely going through Peng right now. We hope that she feels that none of this is her fault, we are very proud of her,” Simon said in an interview with CNN Wednesday, following the newest WTA statement.
“But this is something we can’t walk away from. If we walk away from this, we’re basically telling the world, that not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness it requires is OK,” he said. “It’s something that we simply cannot allow to happen, and it’s not where we stand for as an organization.”
WTA’s decision to pull out of China was applauded Wednesday by some biggest names in women’s tennis, many of whom have previously voiced concerns for Peng’s safety and whereabouts on Twitter, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
International Tennis Hall of Fame Billie Jean King praised the WTA decision “for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world.”