WTA Suspended Tour in China Over Peng Shuai’ Safety

WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong has been suspended because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former Communist party official there of sexual assault. The immediate suspension could result in cancellations of those events beyond 2022, the head of the women’s professional tennis tour told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year earlier signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA finals in Shenzhen, according to Reuters news agency.

“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,” WTA president Steve Simon said.

he 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.”

In announcing the suspension of the tournaments, the Simon emphasized that China’s handling of Peng’s situation was not acceptable and should not be allowed to become acceptable and normal.

“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep sexual assault under the rug then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

Simon said the move to put a halt to the tour’s play in China and Hong Kong, came with the backing of the WTA board of directors, players, tournaments and sponsors. It is the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body — and one that could cost the WTA millions of dollars.

China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and media of “malicious hyping” and politicising Peng’s disappearance from public view.

In responds to a question about the WTA’s withdrawal at a news conference Thursday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson 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.”

Tennis star Peng Shuai accuses former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Image: AP
Tennis star Peng Shuai accuses former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Image: AP

Shuai 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.

In her since-removed post, Peng wrote, in part: “I know that to you, vice minister Zhang Gaoli, a person of high status and power, you’ve said you’re not afraid. With your intelligence, you certainly will deny it or you can even use it against me, you can dismiss it without a care. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us.”

The tennis star was immediately disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the women tennis’ world to demand answers as to her whereabouts coupled with a full investigation into her allegations against Gaoli.

Simon expressed regrets at having to suspend a major event like this in China, but said he was “greatly concerned” at the risks players and staff could face if events were held in the country in 2022.

“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.

Gaoli is seen during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March 2016. Image: AP
Gaoli is seen during a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March 2016. Image: AP

Concerns about the censoring of Shuai’ post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furor, turning #WhereIsPengShuai into a trending topic on social media and the world, drawing support from tennis stars such as Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, Rafael Nadal and Martina Navratilova, and Canadian players including Genie Bouchard, Milos Raonic and Vasek Pospisil.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has held a video call with the former doubles world number one amid concerns about Shuai’s wellbeing, the IOC said in a statement on Thursday.

The IOC said it held the call just before the WTA announced the suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the player’s wellbeing.

The IOC and its president Thomas Bach first talked to Shuai on Nov., 21.

According to the IOC, Shuai explained that she was “safe and sound at her home in Beijing but that she would like her privacy to be respected.” Chinese Olympic Committee member Li Lingwei participated in the video conference with president Bach.

The IOC said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China” following questions about Shuai, according to the Associated Press.