When WTA President and CEO Steve Simon stated that the women’s tennis tour will postpone tournaments in China due to concerns over former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai’s well-being, he did not intend to set the tone for how sports should deal with China.
And, based on initial reactions to the WTA’s groundbreaking stance on Thursday, no one seems too eager to follow suit with the kinds of actions that would come with a real financial hit, including the International Olympic Committee — which is set to open the Beijing Winter Games in two months — as well as the men’s tennis tour and the International Tennis Federation.
“I’m not trying to convey a message to other sports organizations, or to influence or judge their actions.” In a video chat with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Simon said, “This is a WTA decision that touched the WTA athlete and our basic beliefs.” “And I believe it extends beyond that, into something that is obviously very, very sensitive on a global scale for women in general.” We’re focusing on it since we’re the main women’s sports organization and have a direct impact on it.
“Now I’m going to encourage everyone who has backed us so far — and those who haven’t — to keep speaking up and talking about this critical issue. However, they must make their own judgments in terms of what they must do for their own commercial interests and reasons. And I have no desire to sway that.”
The WTA is the first sports organization to openly and bluntly criticize China’s authoritarian government, which generates billions of dollars in revenue from sports such as the Olympics, tennis, the NBA, and golf.
Audrye Wong, a political scientist at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese politics, is doubtful that Simon’s group will be accompanied.
“This is a courageous and admirable decision by the WTA,” Wong said in an email to the Associated Press. “However, I doubt that many other sporting bodies or corporations would follow in the WTA’s footsteps.”
The ITF, which regulates Grand Slam tournaments and other events throughout the world, and the CEO of the men’s ATP Tour published statements on Thursday that gave one indication: Neither of them mentioned China or the suspension of the WTA.
Wong believes that Chinese citizens may be urged to boycott international tennis-related items, and that the WTA’s stance might lead to increased political persecution.
“Unfortunately, international pressure will exacerbate CCP (Chinese Communist Party) suspicions that social movements like #MeToo constitute a threat to regime stability and must be dealt with more forcefully,” she said.
Peng, a three-time Olympian and former No. 1 doubles player, disappeared from public view a month ago after leveling sexual assault charges against Zhang Gaoli, a former member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee who resigned in 2018.
Her charges, which she made on social media, were quickly removed from China’s strictly restricted internet. Peng then vanished from the public eye. The first #MeToo case to reach China’s political arena was not covered by the local media, and internet discussion of it was heavily restricted.
Indeed, it appears that few people in the nation are aware of Peng’s charges or the aftermath — or why tennis may be less popular in the country next season.
Simon, who stated that he has the support of the WTA Board of Directors, players, tournaments, and sponsors, stated that the tour will not hold events in China until the Chinese government agrees to conduct a full investigation into Peng’s allegations and allows the WTA to communicate directly with her. That, he suggested, may last until 2022.
Every year, China hosts roughly ten WTA tournaments, including the season-ending Tour Finals, which will be hosted there for the next ten years.
“I’m not sure how to quantify the actual impact, but it will undoubtedly be in the millions of dollars.” And, you know, time will tell how deep and how far that goes, depending on what comes our way. I’ll just state that it is noteworthy. “It’ll be important,” Simon told the Associated Press. “And it’s something we’ll have to deal with and work our way through.” But I’m certain that we’ll be able to handle and get through it.”
China’s authorities did not respond to the WTA’s decision on Thursday. Wang Wenbin, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, refused to comment on the tournament postponement or Peng’s safety when asked.
“At a daily briefing, we are always adamantly opposed to activities that politicize sports,” Wang said.
The IOC said it conducted a second call with Peng on Thursday, after the first one on Nov. 21. In all cases, the IOC refused to share any audio, video, or transcripts, explain how the contact was set up, or clarify whether Peng’s sexual assault charges were discussed.
The IOC promised to “keep in constant contact with her” and “had already arranged on a personal meeting in January,” just before the lucrative Beijing Games begin on Feb. 4.
“The IOC reaction is unpersuasive to everyone but the Chinese government, which is the entity that it most needs to satisfy,” Mary Gallagher, a China researcher at the University of Michigan, said after the initial IOC conversation with Peng.
Any communication Peng has had so far, according to Diana Fu, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies Chinese state control, was most likely planned. She stated that the message was intended for those outside of China; but, if Peng’s story became well known within China, it may act as a spark for the #MeToo movement, according to Fu.
“A sex scandal is not debilitating for the Party in and of itself,” Fu added. “However, Beijing is concerned about widespread internet discussion of it, which might reignite a smoldering #MeToo movement in China.
“Given that Beijing just pushed the NBA to its knees over the Houston Rockets general manager’s support for Hong Kong,” Fu noted, “it will be very difficult for the WTA to corner China.” “The WTA is riding the tiger by standing with Peng Shuai. It will be difficult to dismount without incurring consequences once on the tiger’s back.”