The women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that it was immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to the disappearance from public life of the tennis star Peng Shuai after she accused a top Communist Party leader of sexual assault.
The move, which represents a groundbreaking shift in how major sports organizations deal with China’s increasingly authoritarian government, comes as the Women’s Tennis Association has failed to speak directly with Peng after she made the accusations in posts on her social media channels that were soon deleted. The Chinese government quickly moved to scrub its internet of all mentions of Peng, who disappeared from public life for more than two weeks.
Peng, a Grand Slam doubles champion and three-time Olympian, resurfaced late last month in a series of appearances with Chinese officials, including in a video conference with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, which will bring the Winter Games to Beijing in February.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
“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,” Simon added. “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.”
The move by the WTA marks a major turning point in how sports leagues have dealt with China, a vast market that has provided a huge opportunity for growth among leagues including Premier League soccer, the N.B.A., professional tennis and golf. Doing business in China has become both lucrative and complicated in recent years as the country’s government has cracked down on free speech and political protest. Its treatment of Muslim minorities has been deemed genocide by the United States and lawmakers in several nations.
And the suspension comes just two months before the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, another crowning moment for the Chinese capital, which will become the first city to host both the summer and winter versions of the world’s largest sporting showcase.
Peng, 35, accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier of China, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having had an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang.
She quickly dropped out of public life. As demands for an inquiry grew louder, China’s state-owned broadcaster released a message that it claimed was from the tennis star recanting her accusations.
“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” it stated before calling her initial accusation of sexual assault untrue. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”
The message, which few believed was actually from Peng herself, only raised concerns further, as did additional photos and videos of her that began to appear — all from sources in China’s government-controlled media.
Then, 10 days ago, with pressure mounting on the I.O.C., the organization released pictures of Bach holding his video call with Peng and Emma Terho, who leads the I.O.C. athletes’ commission.
However, a friend of Peng assisted her with her English, according to an Olympic official, even though Peng had become proficient in the language over her 15-year professional tennis career. Li Lingwei, an I.O.C. member and Chinese Tennis Federation official, also took part in the conversation.
Simon said then that the call did not alleviate the WTA’s concerns about Peng’s well-being and ability to communicate freely. “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault,” he said, signaling that he had no intention of easing his stance or its consequences.
The WTA stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years by pulling out of China. The WTA has a 10-year deal to hold its season-ending tournament in Shenzhen, where organizers committed to some $150 million in prize money and millions more on tennis development in the country. The deal began in 2019. The WTA holds eight other tournaments in the country, as well.
So far, other sports organizations have not matched the urgency expressed by Simon and the WTA. The governing body for the men’s tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, expressed concern for Peng’s safety and also asked that officials investigate her allegations, but has not yet suggested it would stop holding tournaments in China.
On Tuesday, World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, affirmed its intention to hold its relay championships in Guangzhou in 2023. The organization, which is led by Sebastian Coe, who is a leading member of the I.O.C., selected Guangzhou earlier this year.
Understand the Disappearance of Peng Shuai
For Simon, the situation involving Peng has thrust him into the spotlight, a place he has rarely sought in a career spent mostly operating in the background and ceding the stage to others.
Simon spent a decade running the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells before taking over the WTA in 2015. He guided Indian Wells into becoming the biggest tennis tournament outside of the Grand Slams but his most notable achievement was quietly gaining the trust of Serena Williams and convincing her to return to the event after a 13-year absence.
Williams has been vocal about the need for Peng to be able to speak freely, as have other major figures in tennis including Naomi Osaka, Martina Navratilova, the retired champion, and Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN commentator and former player.
Richard Pound, a Canadian lawyer and the I.O.C.’s longest-serving member, initially raised concerns about how China’s treatment of Peng could influence the upcoming Olympics, but later defended the organization’s tactics and has taken aim at its critics in a series of interview the past week.
“What the I.O.C. established is that quiet and discreet diplomacy gets you better than clashing cymbals,” Pound said in an interview with The New York Times last week. “That’s not the way you deal with any country, certainly not with China.”
For the I.O.C., the timing could not be worse. The organization is coming off its staging of the postponed Summer Games in Tokyo, where roughly 80 percent of the country’s population was opposed to the event taking place, according to polling in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony.
Now it is taking its marquee winter event to China, a move that many critics are now comparing to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the modern Olympics — the staging of the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, an event that Adolf Hitler leveraged as propaganda for his fascist Nazi rule of Germany.
The question now is whether other sports organizations will follow the WTA’s lead, or whether they will resist giving up the potential riches of the Chinese market. The N.H.L., for example, which plans to stop its season in February so its stars can participate in the Olympic hockey tournament, has been largely silent on the matter.
For Simon, the issue is clear, especially after the WTA successfully moved its season-ending tournament for this year to Mexico following China’s cancellation of the event because of Covid-19. While the prize money dropped to $5 million from $14 million, few appeared to mind skipping the trip to China.
“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,” he said Wednesday. “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.”