Peng Shuai: WTA announces immediate suspension of tournaments in China amid concern for tennis player

In a statement released Wednesday, Simon said the decision was based on the lack of transparency by Chinese officials following tennis player Peng Shuai’s allegation of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official.

“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said.

“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”

One of China’s most recognizable sports stars, Peng publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex at his home, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.

Following the accusation, Peng disappeared from public view, prompting several fellow tennis players to express worry on social media, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.

On November 21, the International Olympic Committee said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, had a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng, joined by a Chinese sports official and an IOC official.

The statement said that, during the call, Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and was “relaxed,” saying she “would like to have her privacy respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng was organized and has not made the video publicly available.

Longtime IOC member Dick Pound said the “unanimous conclusion” by those on a call with Peng is that she is fine.

But the European Union on Tuesday said it wants China to release “verifiable proof” that Peng is safe and to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegations.

Simon said the WTA recognized when Peng released her statement in November that her “message had to be listened to and taken seriously. The players of the WTA, not to mention women around the world, deserve nothing less.”

“From that moment forward, Peng Shuai demonstrated the importance of speaking out, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, and especially when powerful people are involved,” Simon said. “As Peng said in her post, ‘even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.’ She knew the dangers she would face, yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage.”

In the statement, Simon goes on to explain he has “serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation.”

“The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation — without censorship — into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation,” he said.

Steve Simon speaks at a news conference at Singapore Sports Hub in 2018.

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang — who has faded from public life since his retirement in 2018 — and there is no indication an investigation is underway. It remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police.

Late last month, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the government hoped “malicious speculation” regarding Peng’s well-being and whereabouts would stop, adding that her case should not be politicized.

On Wednesday, International Tennis Hall of Famer Billie Jean King applauded the WTA decision “for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world.”

“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players,” Jean said in a statement, adding: “This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”

There have been no WTA events in China for the past two years because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The WTA has yet to release the 2022 event calendar, but on average the professional tennis tour has held about 10 tournaments each year in China, including the season-ending WTA Finals.

“I have been gratified by the massive amount of international support the WTA has received for its position on this matter,” Simon said. “To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out. The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications.

“I very much regret it has come to this point. The tennis communities in China and Hong Kong are full of great people with whom we have worked for many years. They should be proud of their achievements, hospitality, and success. However, unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China. China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice. I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”

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