In the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body, the head of the women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that all WTA tournaments there would be suspended because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official of sexual assault.
Peng dropped out of public view after raising the allegations about former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a Nov. 2 social media posting that was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.
"Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way," WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement distributed by the tour. "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 has made repeated calls for what he termed Wednesday a "full and transparent investigation — without censorship" of Peng’s accusations. He said the move to put a halt to his tour’s play in China, including Hong Kong, came "with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors."
"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."
China typically hosts about 10 women’s tennis tournaments each year, including the prestigious season-ending WTA Finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade. The nation is a source of billions of dollars in income for various sports entities based elsewhere, including the WTA (headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida), the NBA (run out of New York) and the International Olympic Committee (Lausanne, Switzerland).
"I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world," International Tennis Hall of Fame member and women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King said. "The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players. This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports."
The U.S. Tennis Association commended Simon and the WTA, tweeting a statement that read: "This type of leadership is courageous and what is needed to ensure the rights of all individuals are protected and all voices are heard."
International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said the ITF Board would meet Thursday to discuss the matter.
"The WTA has remained steadfast and true to its values since the outset and we understand their decision," Bowler said. "We will continue to monitor the situation closely."
Beijing is set to host the Winter Games beginning on Feb. 4, and IOC President Thomas Bach said on Nov. 21 that he spoke with Peng — a three-time Olympian — on a 30-minute video call. The IOC did not release video or a transcript of the exchange and said only that Bach reported that she said she was well.
The IOC said in a statement that Peng appeared to be "doing fine" and said she had requested privacy. The IOC did not explain how the call was arranged, although it has worked closely with the Chinese Olympic Committee and government officials to organize the upcoming Games.
Critics have suggested that Peng would not have called the IOC if she was truly free to speak.
The European Union said Tuesday it wants China to offer "verifiable proof" that Peng — a 35-year-old who used to be ranked No. 1 in doubles and won titles at Wimbledon and the French Open — is safe.
"Her recent public reappearance does not ease concerns about her safety and freedom," an EU spokesperson said.
A number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people have disappeared in recent years after criticizing ruling Communist Party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labor rights campaigns.
Peng wrote in her removed post, 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."
Concerns about the censoring of her post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furor, turning #WhereIsPengShuai into a trending topic on social media and drawing support from tennis stars such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Martina Navratilova.
But news of the first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media and online discussion of it has been highly censored.
"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," Simon said. "I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players."