China returns serve at WTA's decision to suspend tournaments over Peng Shuai

Chinese authorities have hit back at the WTA after the women's tennis tour suspended all events in the country in support of tennis player Peng Shuai.

Peng Shuai from China in action during her semi final round match on day 13 of the US Open in New York City.

The WTA has withdrawn from China over concerns for Peng Shuai. Source: ABACA

This article contains references to sexual assault.

Beijing has taken umbrage at the suspension of Women's Tennis Association (WTA) tournaments in China in solidarity with Peng Shuai.

The WTA made their strong stance on Wednesday after the Chinese player made a sexual assault accusation against a former high-ranking government official and then disappeared from public view.

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Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly mention the WTA on Thursday but pointedly said that China "opposes the politicisation of sports".



In an editorial, the Global Times newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily, said the WTA was betraying the Olympic spirit and bringing politics into tennis.

"Some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics," it added, referring to the February event which some rights groups want boycotted over China's human rights record.

Peng, a former world number one doubles player, was not seen in public for nearly three weeks after she posted a message on social media in early November accusing China's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex.

Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng's accusation and the topic has been blocked on China's heavily-censored internet.

Peng, a three-time Olympian, did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children's tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament's organisers showed.

An IOC handout photo shows IOC President Thomas Bach on a video call with  Peng Shuai.
An IOC handout photo shows IOC President Thomas Bach on a video call with Peng Shuai. Source: AAP


And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had held a second video call with the 35-year-old player on Wednesday following one late last month.

The IOC said it had offered her support, would stay in regular touch, and had agreed to a personal meeting in January.

She appeared to be "safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in", it added in its statement on Thursday.



Unconvinced, however, the US-based WTA wants further assurances of her well-being and an investigation before it returns to the lucrative Chinese market.

"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation," chief executive Steve Simon said, suggesting she was pressured to retract her allegation.

Equality for women would suffer a setback if powerful people could suppress accusations of assault, he added. "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."

From former women's greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to men's number one Novak Djokovic, many in the tennis world have applauded the WTA, which stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in TV and sponsorship revenue.

"Really strong stance. Far bigger things in the world than a game of tennis," said Australian player John Millman.

The WTA had been fast expanding into China, where local interest was fuelled when Li Na won the 2011 French Open.

China hosted just two WTA events in 2008 but 11 years later was staging nine - including the WTA Tour finals - though the pandemic forced the cancellation of all but one this year and last.

Zhang Gaoli signs the Secretary-General's guestbook at UN Headquarters in New York City in April of 2016.
Zhang Gaoli signs the Secretary-General's guestbook at UN Headquarters in New York City in April of 2016. Source: LightRocket


Global governing body The International Tennis Federation said on Thursday it stood in support of women's rights and that Peng's allegations must be addressed.

Peng posted in early November that Zhang had coerced her into sex and they later had an on-off consensual relationship. The message was deleted half an hour later.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit . In an emergency, call 000.

 


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4 min read
Published 3 December 2021 at 7:48am
Source: AAP,SBS