Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai

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The women’s world tennis body suspended the China tournament in Beijing over its handling of sexual harassment allegations against the top player.

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A prominent Chinese national associated with a major international organization goes missing, then a letter is sent saying all is well. The organization appears to be accepting the letter at face value, though questions remain before citizens emerge under pressure months later.

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Circumstances are different but a common thread is the disappearances of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last month accused former deputy prime minister Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, and former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, who went missing on a trip to China Were. He was found guilty of corruption in 2018 and 18 months later. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Following Meng’s disappearance, Interpol largely accepted his resignation letter, and Secretary-General Jürgen Stock told the Associated Press news agency that the international police body was forbidden by internal rules to conduct an investigation.

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Things could have been the same for Peng, a world-class athlete and Olympian, when a social media post about her ordeal with Zhang was deleted, except that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) immediately backtracked. . Prominent tennis players also followed suit, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

The WTA continued to raise questions after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN shared an email on Twitter – purportedly from Peng – saying she was “not missing” or “insecure” and that reports of her allegations were “not true.” ” Was. She re-emerged in public a few days later and has now spoken to the International Olympic Committee on a highly criticized video call.

,[It] WTA President and CEO Steve Simon later said that while the organization is concerned about its well-being, it is unclear whether it is independent and able to make decisions and act on its own, without pressure or outside interference. .

Alleged email from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon that was broadcast on state broadcaster CGTN last month [CGTN/Twitter via Reuters]
A handout photo provided by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) website shows a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai on 21 November 2021.After the WTA repeatedly expressed concern about Peng Shuai’s well-being, the IOC said it had a video call with the player and released a still image from the call. [IOC via EPA]

Late on Wednesday, the WTA announced the “immediate suspension” of all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. According to news agency Reuters, China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year ago signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.

“It’s really crazy that the Women’s Tennis Federation has more credibility than Interpol in pushing back on China’s blatant human rights abuses, kidnapping members of its organization, and piercing holes in only thinly veiled statements and propaganda, ” What was said. Michael Castor, co-founder of the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.

‘is not acceptable’

China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and the media of carrying out “malicious propaganda” and politicizing Peng’s disappearance from public view.

Meanwhile, Peng has not been seen in public in several weeks, according to Zhang Koster, a high-ranking member of the party at the center of the allegations.

He described Peng’s situation as part of a “playbook” used by the Chinese government when raising concerns about the well-being of a citizen or foreigner living in China – from human rights lawyer Wang Yu to Swedish human rights activist Until Peter Dahlin, who went on to become one of the founders of Safeguard Defenders.

“These ridiculous public presentations of Peng Shuai were clearly written as part of a promotional effort and we say so because we’ve seen this film before,” Castor told Al Jazeera.

Announcing the suspension of the tournaments, WTA’s Simon stressed that China’s handling of Peng’s case was not acceptable and should not be allowed.

Simon said in a statement, “If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and sexually harass them down the rug, then the premise on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – will be dealt a major blow.” ” “I will not and will not allow this to happen to the WTA and its players.”

Other international sporting bodies have already been targeted by Beijing over the position taken by their players and officials.

China briefly stopped broadcasting NBA games after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests and Premier League football after speaking out against China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs The player Mesut Ozil was wiped from the Chinese Internet.

Recently, games involving the NBA’s Boston Celtics have been removed from broadcast in China, as their centre, Aeneas Kanter, criticized President Xi Jinping and China’s support for Taiwan with Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. continues.

reckoning moment

However, the WTA had the political momentum and timing, allowing the organization to take a calculated risk, says Simon Chadwick, professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France.

Peng’s case and allegations of sexual misconduct also come at a time of discussion on mental health in the sporting world following #MeToo allegations and public struggles by athletes such as Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles.

“Number one for the WTA is that women and girls are their main occupation. This is what the organization is founded on and should not be seen as supporting someone who has clearly gone missing, will undermine what the WTA does,” Chadwick said.

“My feeling is that the WTA probably did a calculation and decided that it stood to lose more globally by saying nothing, then it essentially stood up to China and lost.”

Chadwick says that despite considerable investments in the Chinese tennis industry, women’s tennis has not progressed as fast as the WTA had initially hoped.

Its deal with China is also struggling due to the pandemic. So far, Shenzhen has hosted only one WTA Finals in 2019. The 2020 final was canceled as a result of the coronavirus, and the 2021 event was moved to Mexico following another Covid-19 outbreak in China.

The NBA came under pressure in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters in 2019 [File: Xihao Jiang/Reuters]

This could give the WTA a latitude unavailable to groups such as the IOC, which is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February. That organization has also suffered as a result of the pandemic with the Tokyo Olympics pushed back a year and not attending the usual number of spectators.

According to the Associated Press, following Peng’s disappearance, the IOC has said it will “continue our open dialogue at all levels with the Olympic Movement in China”.

IOC Athletes Commission Chair Emma Terho said on Twitter that the organization prioritizes a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.

Based in the Republican state of Florida, the WTA may also have felt some political pressure beyond Beijing.

Chadwick notes that Washington is considering boycotting the Winter Games in protest of human rights abuses in places such as Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

“I wonder to what extent there may be some political pressure from within the United States on the WTA to react the way it did. I think from the point of view of the WTA, they did within two or three days.” Responded very, very quickly… unusually fast. “And that’s extremely unusual.”

On Wednesday, Simon expressed regret at the postponement of events in China, but said he was “very concerned” at the risks those and staff could face if events are held in the country in 2022.

He once again urged Beijing to prove that Peng is independent, and able to speak “without interference or intimidation” and to fully investigate the assault allegations.

“I hope that our arguments will be heard and that the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately resolve the issue.”

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