China has attacked the Women’s Tennis Association’s boycott in response to the treatment of Peng Shuai, as two other major international tennis associations steered clear of the subject of future events in a market worth billions of dollars.
Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said at a daily briefing that his government was “always firmly opposed to acts that politicise sports”.
The WTA said on Wednesday it was suspending all tournaments in China in response to continued questions over Peng’s condition.
Its chair, Steve Simon, said he did not see how he could ask his athletes to compete in mainland China and Hong Kong “when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault”.
Peng, 35, accused a 75-year-old former senior Chinese official of having sexually assaulted her in a lengthy social media post on 2 November. The essay was quickly removed and she was not seen in public for more than two weeks.
The WTA’s boycott decision marked a significant shift in how sports associations have dealt with China. In the past, organisations have rapidly backed down from rows with Beijing for fear of losing its lucrative market.
By contrast, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) steered clear of the subject of future events in a statement on Thursday, saying that as the governing body of tennis, it stood in support of all women’s rights. “Our primary concern remains Peng Shuai’s wellbeing. The allegations Peng made must be addressed. We will continue to support all efforts being made to that end, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
The WTA, which in the past decade has made huge investments in the Chinese market, has not held events in the country since the Covid pandemic. But in the 2019 season China hosted nine tournaments, including the season-ending WTA Finals, with a total of $30.4m (£22.6m) in prize money – a significant portion of the WTA’s revenues.
Mark Dreyer, the Beijing-based founder of China Sports Insider, said the WTA’s decision would put pressure on other associations, such as the men’s professional tennis tour, the ATP. “The WTA is winning the moral battle in the west, and it’s going to be quite hard for other organisations to do it differently.”
In a statement on Thursday, the ATP instead called for “a line of open direct communication” between Peng and the WTA, and said that it will “continue to consult with our members and monitor any developments as this issue evolves.”
“We know that sport can have a positive influence on society and generally believe that having a global presence gives us the best chance of creating opportunity and making an impact,” the organisation’s chair, Andrea Gaudenzi, wrote.
The International Olympic Committee, which was accused of staging a “publicity stunt” for Beijing by holding a video chat with Peng on 21 November and reporting that she said she was “safe and well”, said it had held a second call with her on Wednesday.
“We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the wellbeing and safety of Peng Shuai,” it said. “We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”
No details were given of the conversation.
The WTA was one of the first international sports associations to question Peng’s wellbeing. Fellow tennis stars from Naomi Osaka to Serena Williams have tweeted in solidarity with Peng using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
In the past month Chinese state-affiliated media organisations have attempted to show Peng was fine by releasing videos and photos of her. But instead these efforts have transformed a #MeToo complaint into a diplomatic incident.
Multiple western governments including the US and Australia have called on Beijing to prove Peng is safe. The Biden administration said it was considering a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
Tennis stars have praised the WTA’s decision to put human rights before profits. “I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world,” said Billie Jean King, the American former world No 1. “The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players. This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Novak Djokovic, the men’s No 1, said he fully supported the WTA’s stance, and said other organisations such as his Professional Tennis Players Association and the Association of Tennis Professionals were “asking for clarity on what is going on”.
“We don’t have enough information and I think it’s a very bold, very courageous stance from WTA,” Djokovic said.
The narrative from Beijing’s side, however, is rather different. In a tweet on Wednesday the editor of the Global Times, a hardline nationalist state-owned newspaper, criticised the WTA for “coercing Peng Shuai to support the west’s attack on Chinese system”.
Hu Xijin wrote: “They are depriving Peng Shuai’s freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation.”