China’s in a Catch-22 over the WTA’s Peng Shuai challenge

FILE PHOTO: China’s Peng Shuai practises at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, January 13, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: China’s Peng Shuai practises at the Australian Open at Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia, January 13, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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In the Women’s Tennis Association, the Chinese government has met a global organization it rarely encounters—one that is standing up for human rights at the cost of the lucrative China market.

The WTA on Wednesday said it will pull all tournaments from China, where it has a 10-year deal to hold season-ending tournaments in Shenzhen through 2028, as well as a streaming partnership with Chinese company iQiyi. The organization has been battling with Chinese authorities over the wellbeing of tennis champion Peng Shuai, who last month leveled a sexual assault allegation against a former top Communist Party official. Though Chinese state media have circulated images that claim to show Peng is fine, Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of WTA, said that China’s leadership had not addressed the 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,” said Simon. “The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation—without censorship—into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation.”

With the WTA stealing Beijing’s usual move of threatening to shut out organizations or companies it’s unhappy with, Beijing’s next move is less clear—especially as it’s trying to keep a lid on the whole issue.

Standing up for Peng Shuai

Peng vanished from public view soon after she alleged in a Nov. 2 Weibo post that former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli coerced her into a sexual relationship. The post was quickly deleted and discussion of Peng and Zhang were censored.

Unexpectedly, the association began issuing statements demanding Beijing investigate the allegation, stop censoring the tennis player, and offer verifiable proof of Peng’s safety.

Late last month state media circulated an email that was purportedly from the tennis player, as well as photos of her at a tennis event and a video of her apparently out eating a meal. But this campaign failed to calm the growing international outcry, which included tennis players such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, and other athletes, asking about her whereabouts.

The WTA had previously warned it would pull its tournaments if it was dissatisfied with China’s response.

“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,” said the WTA’s Simon in the statement. “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.”

A different playbook

By standing up so firmly for Peng, the WTA has posed a rare challenge to Beijing, whose enormous market has given it the power to tailor how multinationals communicate on matters it considers sensitive. From human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to how to classify Taiwan, the power of the Chinese state-promoted consumer backlash has been evident.

“I think we have got so accustomed to international businesses cowering to the Chinese government for market access, we lost sense of what it should be like, so an act of integrity is being viewed as extraordinary,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, in an interview shortly before the WTA’s pull out.

The body built for and by female sports champions, has a reputation for standing up for women’s equality, and shelving those values to deal with China would have been a glaring divergence. With “the Peng Shuai case, unlike some other cases, the right and wrong are so clear…And the WTA didn’t want to be in a position that it has to justify a clear wrong in order to stay in business,” she told Quartz.

The WTA’s stance has been contrasted with that of the International Olympic Committee, which is counting down to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, and has been accused of promoting Beijing’s messaging on Peng. The International Olympic Committee last month said in a statement that its chief had a video chat with Peng, and that she wished to be left alone, and after another call this week said that the tennis player is “safe and well.” IOC chief Thomas Bach said he will meet Peng in person when he visits Beijing in January.

Covid-zero’s unintended consequences

Other factors may have helped clear the WTA’s path to taking a strong position of support for Peng.

Most international sports events are barred from taking place in China or have been canceled because of strict quarantine rules. Since the pandemic, the WTA has held no events in the country. Instead of Shenzhen, its final this year took place in Mexico.

“The China business is on pause anyway, it doesn’t have immediate ramifications for pulling out of China, because they effectively shifted out of China due to the pandemic,” said Mark Dreyer, the founder of the China Sports Insider website, also commenting before the Wednesday announcement from WTA. “That is not why they are doing what they are doing, but it makes it easier for them to do.”

Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a cost to the move. Shenzhen doubled the prize money for the WTA Finals to $14 million, and the 2019  final saw Australian tennis player Ashleigh Barty bag $4.4 million—a record high for tennis.

Beijing’s Catch-22

In addition, the blanket censorship of Peng’s allegations in China may be inadvertently helping the WTA challenge the regime without having to deal with much of a backlash from its citizens. As China has scrapped any trace of Peng’s allegations, ordinary Chinese citizens have largely been kept in the dark about the issue.

In a telling sign of how China’s hands are tied in dealing with the Peng Shuai issue, none of the mainstream Chinese media have reported on the WTA move, while a search of the player’s name on Chinese social media platform Weibo only yielded one result relevant to her allegations. That’s a Nov. 22 post from the French Embassy in China that expressed its concerns for Peng’s safety but without mentioning her accusations against Zhang. According to the Guardian, a few stray posts on Weibo expressed praise for the WTA’s stance before being deleted.

The state-owned Global Times tweeted a picture of an English-language editorial that rebukes the WTA for “bringing politics into women’s tennis deeply,” and said it was setting a “bad example for the entire sporting world.” But the article can’t be found on its English website, let alone in China.

“A Chinese company can’t just say ‘we are going to stop working with tennis players because they are supporting Peng’…they just can’t talk about it at all,” said Isaac Stone Fish, founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, which advises on China.