In solidarity with Peng Shuai, Beijing on Thursday expressed outrage over the suspension of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournament in China after the player was accused of sexual harassment.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly mention the WTA, but explicitly said that China “opposes the politicization of the game”.
In an editorial, the Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said the WTA was betraying the Olympic spirit and bringing politics to tennis.
“Some forces in the West are provoking a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics,” it said, referring to the February incident, which some rights groups seek to boycott over China’s human rights record.
Peng, a former world No. 1 doubles player, did not appear in public for nearly three weeks, when she posted a message on social media in early November accusing former Chinese Vice-Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli of having sex with her .
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng’s allegations and the subject has been blocked on China’s heavily censored internet.
The men’s counterpart, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), said on Thursday that Peng’s condition raised serious concerns within and outside the sport.
ATP president Andrea Gaudenzi said: “The response to those concerns has so far been subdued. We again urge a line of open direct communication between the player and the WTA to establish a clearer picture of his position.”
Peng, a three-time Olympian, appeared at a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing in mid-November, photos and videos published by Chinese state media and shown by tournament organizers.
And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had a second video call with the 35-year-old on Wednesday late last month.
The IOC said it had offered him support, would remain in regular contact, and had agreed to an in-person meeting in January. “Given the difficult situation she is in, she appears to be safe and well,” she said in her statement on Thursday.
‘Things bigger than tennis’
Unconvinced, however, the US-headquartered WTA wants further assurances about his well being and an investigation before returning to the lucrative Chinese market.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that he is free, secure, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” Chief Executive Steve Simon said on Wednesday, suggesting that he He was pressured to withdraw his charge.
If powerful people can suppress allegations of assault, women’s equality will suffer, he said. “I am also very concerned about the risks that all our players and staff may face if we hold events in China in 2022.”
Simon told CNN on Thursday that he had received an email from Peng, but said he thought it was “100% planned” and did not reflect his “real situation.”
From former women’s greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic, many in the tennis world applauded the WTA, which loses hundreds of millions of dollars in TV and sponsorship revenue.
Australian player John Millman said, “Really strong stance. There are bigger things in the world than the game of tennis.”
The WTA was expanding rapidly in China, where local interest peaked when Li Na won the 2011 French Open.
China hosted just two WTA events in 2008, but 11 years later nine were staged – including the WTA Tour Finals – although the pandemic forced the cancellation of all except this year and the last.
Another major global tennis body, the International Tennis Federation, also said it stood for women’s rights and that Peng’s allegations should be addressed.
Peng posted in early November that Gaoli had forced her into sex and that they later had a consensual relationship. After half an hour the message was deleted.
Sexual harassment and assault in China was rarely publicly exposed until a student accused her professor of sexual harassment when the #MeToo movement began in 2018.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)