The Women’s Tennis Association has doubled down on its threat to withdraw all tournaments from China if missing player Peng Shuai is not found soon, calling the issue “bigger than business” as the sporting world condemns the country’s silence on her whereabouts.
Peng, an Australian Open doubles finalist, has not been seen since making sexual assault allegations against a former senior Chinese Communist Party official on November 2. Chinese state media released a statement saying “everything is fine” purporting to be from the 35-year-old on Thursday but that only raised further fears for her safety.
The growing storm over Peng’s treatment, which has included criticism from Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Barcelona football icon Gerard Pique, comes at a highly sensitive time for Beijing three months out from the start of the Winter Olympics.
US President Joe Biden on Friday said the US government was open to a diplomatic boycott of the Games because of China’s alleged human rights abuses. “That is something we’re considering,” he said.
The Herald and The Age on Thursday detailed the WTA’s threat to the Chinese Tennis Association to establish independent contact with Peng or face having China’s tournaments cancelled.
“If anyone wants to question our fortitude behind a statement like that, they can certainly try to. We’re at a crossroads with our relationship with China and operating our business over there,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon said.
Peng Shuai has not been seen since making sexual assault allegations against a former senior Chinese Communist Party official.Credit:AP
“It’s something that’s actually very sad because we have some amazing relationships over there and developed some unbelievable programs that have developed players that want to be the next Li Na or the next Peng Shuai.”
The WTA is the first international league to threaten China with sanctions over human rights concerns. It could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in one of the sport’s largest markets. China has repeatedly blocked other leagues or teams, including the NBA, from broadcasting in the country after players raised concerns about its actions in Hong Kong or Xinjiang.
“When you look at this, there (are) too many times in our world today when we get into issues like this that we let business, politics, money, dictate what’s right and what’s wrong,” Simon told CNN. “It’s very important that the voices of women need to be respected, not censored, and not dictated to.”
Williams, a 23-time grand slam champion, said she was devastated to hear about Peng’s situation.
“I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible,” she said on Twitter. “This must be investigated, and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”
Tennis Australia has not responded to requests for comment.
The International Olympic Committee on Thursday night said it had been encouraged by “assurances that she is safe” after seeing the statement purported to be by Peng on Chinese state media.
The statement recanted Peng’s previous claims of sexual assault and said she was “not missing, nor unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home”.
But human rights advocates have criticised the response from the Olympics governing body.
“Oh come on, ‘We received assurance’. It’s almost like everyone knows what’s going on, and they are pretending,” said Yaqiu Wang, the senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
“The message really is, ‘If you speak out, no matter how prominent you are, if you speak critically of certain officials you can be in danger. Nobody is safe. Your fame, your star status doesn’t matter.’ ”
Wang said the allegation against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier and one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, was “unprecedented” especially from someone with her fame and “instant credibility”.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen to her, but there are many people who have disappeared into the system for making claims against much lower-level officials, and we never hear from them again,” Wang said.
“It’s not without precedent, a lot of people have been in that situation. If there is no more information then the news media can’t report on it, so eventually it will just phase out.”
Chinese state media has been censored from reporting on the allegations, Peng’s disappearance, or the growing furor engulfing the sporting world.
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