Steve Simon, president and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), understood the possible political and financial retaliation his organization could face from the Chinese government, according to multiple sources familiar with the process. of decision-making, before making a Unprecedented public statement this week prioritizing the safety of an athlete over the organization’s business interests.
Simon issued a public statement on Sunday calling on China to conduct a fair and transparent “uncensored” investigation into allegations made earlier this month by professional tennis player Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted several years ago by Zhang Gaoli. a former senior official in the Chinese Communist Party. Simon said he was concerned about Peng’s safety because repeated attempts to contact her in recent weeks have been unsuccessful. He said that a recent email allegedly from Peng assuring the WTA that she was sure did not seem authentic and it only served to increase her level of concern. Several international tennis stars echoed their concerns to their millions of followers on social media this week.
Peng’s public accusations against a man who previously held one of the country’s most powerful positions are unusual, according to experts tracking human rights issues in China. The response of WTA officials and high-profile tennis players is also a rare strategy, opposing a government that has more and more censored the speech of its citizens and has retaliated against sports organizations and other corporations based on it. foreigners doing business in China for their critical comments on the country, costing them millions in potential profits.
“It’s an unusual response and you have to give the WTA credit for being so vocal,” said Sarah Cook, the director of research for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at the Washington, DC-based think tank Freedom House. “We know of different people who have been detained in the past, international intent can make a big difference. These are not legal decisions; they are political decisions. Even if you fail to free someone, you can protect them physically. It is very important for their well-being that there is this kind of international conversation. “
WTA officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ESPN this week, but Simon has said in multiple interviews that the WTA is willing to sever business ties with China if it does not receive a better response to questions about the security of Peng and a fair investigation into his allegations. The WTA is scheduled to hold 10 tournaments in China in 2022 and has an office in Beijing with employees based in the country.
“We have been very successful [en China]Simon said in an interview with CNN on Thursday night. money dictate what is right and what is wrong. … We have to start as a world to make decisions based on good and evil, period. “
The WTA recently signed a 10-year agreement to host its end of the year in the Chinese city of Shenzhen until 2028. The agreement was unique in its length and financial investment. Simon previously said it represented an investment of approximately $ 1 billion from China to help develop the popularity of women’s tennis in the country, including the construction of a new stadium in the city and a new commitment to double the prize money that the champions receive in the event.
With the Olympics set to arrive in Beijing in less than three months, Peng’s situation and the WTA’s vocal response could serve as a timely test of the response that athletes could receive if they choose to address human rights issues related to China, Cook said. On Thursday, US President Joe Biden said the US government was evaluating a possible diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics – that is, American athletes would still compete but the usual group of diplomats would not. would attend.
The International Olympic Committee declined to comment in detail on Peng, a three-time Olympian, saying instead in a statement that “quiet diplomacy” is a more effective way to reach a solution. Cook said this strategy is a more common tactic, allowing the Communist Party of China to “keep up appearances” publicly. The NBA, for example, has made no statement about Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter’s public protests of Chinese politics or the subsequent removal of Celtics games from streaming services in the country. .
Aggressive public statements by Simon and the WTA appear to have given others in the tennis community, who also have the potential to make big bucks in China, with the impetus to publicly criticize the Chinese government – something few other professional athletes have. have done in the past.
“It could be a turning point in how these types of organizations manifest themselves“Cook said.
Peng’s initial comments, made on the Weibo social media page, were deleted shortly after they were posted in the first week of November. Peng’s social media accounts also do not appear in search results, and comments about her or her allegations have been censored.
In the meantime, Chinese government officials have said they are “not aware of the situation” with Peng and they declined to comment further.
Peng is the latest in a series of high-profile celebrities to be heavily censored online. Hao Haidong, the lifetime top scorer for the Chinese men’s national team, saw his social media accounts deleted and his name censored after he denounced various policies and actions of the Communist Party of China in a YouTube video in 2020. His wife, Ye Zhaoying, who won a bronze medal in badminton at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, was also censored after appearing in the video. Other famous Chinese citizens from the film industry and the corporate world have also seen their internet profiles disappear without explanation.
Cook said that repressive censorship has steadily increased over the past decade under President Xi Jinping. She said dissidents have been jailed for posting a negative meme about Xi online and that others have lost access to their social media profiles or WeChat accounts, a ubiquitous form of communication and payment in China.
Peng, 35, last competed internationally in February 2020, shortly before the WTA halted tour events due to COVID-19. She has not previously said whether she intended to return to the WTA Tour and it is unclear whether the government would restrict her travel for fear that she could defect.
The consequences that Peng and her family could face or even if she remains in the country are unknown.But Cook says Peng’s comments put censorship efforts “into overdrive” because of his celebrity and the unusual nature of his claims.
“It is not just a matter of resolving your situation right now,” Cook said. “We see a lot of activists who are released from prison but they are not really free nor can they leave the country. … It is not as if she will be free and that will be it.”