WTA versus China: Who will back down over Peng Shuai?
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has stepped up its demands for China to fully investigate the sexual assault scandal involving former doubles world number one Peng Shuai. We look at the battle lines which have been drawn.
WHAT ARE THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS?
The WTA announced on Wednesday that it was suspending all tournaments in China until it received assurances that the allegations made by Peng on social media against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli in November are fully investigated.
In a statement, WTA boss Steve Simon said: “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.
“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.”
In follow-up comments, Simon suggested that the pullout from China could last beyond 2022 unless the WTA is able to speak to Peng and “a full and transparent” investigation into the allegations is held “without any level of censorship.”
WHAT DOES THE WTA STAND TO LOSE?
By suspending its events in China, the WTA and its players potentially stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship revenue as well as prize money, according to some estimates.
China hosts around 10 WTA tournaments annually, including the lucrative season-ending WTA Finals.
In 2018, the two parties penned a 10-year deal for the event to be held in Shenzhen, along with record prize money being awarded to the participants.
The event was won by Australia's Ash Barty in 2019 before being canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic and switched to Mexico this year – reportedly because of the pandemic again – but it was due to return in 2022.
In terms of what the WTA stands to gain by standing up to China, the most obvious aim is the reassurances it is seeking regarding Peng’s well-being and an investigation into the claims she appeared to make against Zhang in a swiftly removed social media post in November.
The organization will also be seen by many as putting principles over profit, and taking a stance where others have failed to do so.
WHO ELSE HAS GOT INVOLVED?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a prominent party and has urged “quiet diplomacy” with China rather than the tub-thumping of the WTA.
The IOC held a second video call with Peng on Thursday in which the 35-year-old star “reconfirmed” that she was safe and well considering the “difficult situation,” the organization said on Thursday.
That follows a call between Peng and IOC boss Thomas Bach in November.
So far, the WTA remains unsatisfied with these steps and continues to pursue its own policy of demanding contact with Peng and assurances that her case will be investigated.
Elsewhere, the EU joined the clamor surrounding Peng this week when the bloc called on China to provide “verifiable proof of Peng Shuai’s safety, wellbeing and whereabouts.”
It also urged a “full, fair and transparent investigation into her allegations of sexual assault.”
The UN made a similar call through a spokesperson for its Human Rights office in November, while the US State Department has said it is monitoring the situation.
IS CHINA WILLING TO BACK DOWN?
Beyond releasing images and video footage of Peng at home and at public events through state media, China has thus far showed little sign of bending to pressure from the outside.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson previously described the case as being “maliciously hyped” by the Western media.
After the WTA’s announcement of a pullout this week, the ministry said that the Chinese government was “always firmly opposed to acts that politicize sports.”
Those within China attempting to defend the country would likely argue that enough guarantees that Peng is safe and well have already been given.
Perhaps tellingly, China has acted sternly in previous rows involving organizations such as the NBA when it has been criticized from the outside.
Given the status of the man at the center of the scandal – 75-year-old former vice-premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang – it seems unlikely that China’s official stance will change any time soon, even as it gears up to host the Winter Olympics in February.
The retired Zhang has not appeared publicly or spoken about the claims against him, after Peng accused him of forcing her into sex around three years ago.