WTA support of Peng Shuai an unprecedented challenge to China

Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, understood the potential political and financial backlash his organization could face from the Chinese government, according to multiple sources familiar with the decision-making process, before making an unprecedented public statement this week that prioritized the safety of an athlete over the organization's business interests.

Simon released a public statement Sunday calling on China to conduct a fair and transparent investigation "without censorship" into allegations made earlier this month by professional tennis player Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted a few years ago by Zhang Gaoli, a former high-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party. Simon said he was worried about Peng's safety because repeated attempts to reach her in the past several weeks have been unsuccessful. He said a recent email purportedly from Peng assuring the WTA she was safe did not seem genuine and only served to raise his level of concern. Several international tennis stars echoed his concerns to their millions of followers on social media this week.

Peng's public accusations against a man who previously held one of the country's highest positions of power are unprecedented, according to experts who track human rights issues in China. The response from WTA officials and high-profile tennis players is also a rare approach, pushing back against a government that has increasingly censored its citizens' speech and retaliated against foreign-based sports organizations and other corporations that do business in China for critical comments about the country, costing them millions in potential revenue.

"It's an unusual response and really to the credit of the WTA to be this vocal," said Sarah Cook, the research director for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at D.C.-based think tank Freedom House. "We do know from different people who have been detained in the past, international attention can really make a difference. These are not legal decisions; they are political decisions. Even if it doesn't get someone released, it can physically protect them. It's really important for her well-being that there is this type of international conversation."

WTA officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment from ESPN this week, but Simon has said in multiple interviews that the WTA is willing to sever business ties with China if it doesn't get more of a response to questions about Peng's safety and a fair investigation into her allegations. The WTA is scheduled to hold 10 tournaments in China in 2022 and has an office in Beijing with employees based in the country.

"We've had a lot of success [in China]," Simon said in an interview with CNN on Thursday night. "I think that when you look at this, though, there are too many times in our world today when we get into issues like this and we let business, politics, money dictate what's right and what's wrong. ... We have to start as a world making decisions that are based on right and wrong, period."

The WTA recently signed a 10-year deal to host its year-end finals in the Chinese city of Shenzhen through 2028. The deal was unique in its length and in the financial investment. Simon previously said it represented a roughly $1 billion investment from China to help build the popularity of women's tennis in the country, including the construction of a new stadium in the city and a commitment to double the prize money that champions receive at the event.

With the Olympic Games set to arrive in Beijing in less than three months, Peng's situation and the WTA's vocal response could serve as a timely test case for the response athletes might receive if they choose to address human rights issues related to China, Cook said. On Thursday, President Joe Biden said the U.S. was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games -- meaning American athletes would still compete but the customary group of diplomats would not attend.

The International Olympic Committee declined to make detailed comments about Peng, a three-time Olympian, saying instead in a statement that "quiet diplomacy" is a more effective way to reach a solution. Cook said this approach is a more common tactic, allowing the CCP to "save face" publicly. The NBA, for example, has not made any statement about the public protests of Chinese policy made by Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter or about the subsequent removal of Celtics games from streaming services in the country.

Aggressive public statements from Simon and the WTA seem to have provided others in the tennis community, who also have the potential to make large amounts of money in China, with the impetus to publicly criticize the Chinese government -- something that few other professional athletes have done in the past.

"It could be a tipping point in how these kinds of organizations speak out," Cook said.

Peng's initial comments, made on the social media website Weibo, were deleted shortly after they were posted in the first week of November. Peng's social media accounts also no longer appear in search results, and comments about her or her accusations have been censored.

Meanwhile, Chinese government officials have said they are "not aware of the situation" with Peng and declined to comment further.

Peng is the latest in a series of high-profile Chinese celebrities to be heavily censored online. Hao Haidong, the leading career scorer for the Chinese men's national soccer team, had his social media accounts deleted and his name censored after he decried several CCP policies and actions in a YouTube video in 2020. His wife, Ye Zhaoying, who won a bronze medal in badminton in the Sydney Olympics, was also censored after appearing in the video. Other famous Chinese citizens from the film industry and the business world have also had their internet profiles disappear without explanation.

Cook said repressive censorship has steadily increased during the past decade under President Xi Jinping. She said that dissidents have been imprisoned for posting a negative meme about Xi online and that others have lost access to their social media profiles or WeChat accounts, a ubiquitous form of communication and payment in China.

Peng, 35, last competed internationally in February 2020, shortly before the WTA halted tour events because of COVID-19. She has not previously said whether she intended to return to the WTA Tour and it's unclear whether the government would restrict her travel over fears that she might defect.

It's not known what consequences Peng and her family members could face or whether she is even still in the country, but Cook said Peng's comments sent censorship efforts into "overdrive" because of her celebrity and the unprecedented nature of her claims.

"It's not just a matter of resolving her situation right now," Cook said. "We see a lot of activists who get released from prison but they're not really free or able to leave the country. ... It's not like she's going to be free and that's going to be it."