The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has suspended all tournaments in China and Hong Kong amid ongoing concerns over the safety of Chinese player Peng Shuai.

On November 2, Peng posted on social media an allegation of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official, former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. The post was taken down and Peng was subsequently not seen or heard from for around two weeks.

On November 17, the China Global Television Network published a statement claiming to be from Peng which said the player was not missing or unsafe. Following the release of the statement, WTA chief executive Steve Simon sought “independent and verifiable proof” that Peng was safe.

Peng later held a video call with International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach but the lack of clarity regarding her safety or whereabouts has now prompted the WTA to take serious action.

In a statement published yesterday (Wednesday), Simon spoke of Peng’s “strength and courage” for speaking out over her alleged sexual assault. Simon added that Chinese officials have been given the opportunity to cease the censorship of Peng’s message, “verifiably prove” that she is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a “full, fair and transparent manner”.

Simon’s statement continued: “Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have 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.

“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.”

As a result, Simon and the WTA Board of Directors have immediately suspended all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. Simon said he is “greatly concerned” about potential risks WTA players and staff could face if events were held in China in 2022.

He added: “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.”

In 2019, the Chinese city of Shenzhen hosted the WTA Finals, marking the start of a long-term deal to stage the governing body’s season-ending event. The Finals did not go ahead in 2020 due to COVID-19, and this year’s event was moved to Guadalajara in Mexico amid the ongoing impact of the pandemic.

When announcing Guadalajara as the new host of the event in September, the WTA confirmed that Shenzhen would return as host in 2022 and will continue staging the event until 2030, although the latest developments would appear to put next year’s tournament in jeopardy.

China hosts around 10 WTA events each year and its capital city Beijing is due to host the Winter Olympics in February. Following the release of the WTA’s statement, the IOC today issued a statement of its own confirming that it held another video call with Peng yesterday.

The IOC appears unlikely to take a similar stance to the WTA by suspending the Beijing Olympics. The IOC’s statement spoke of its “very human and person-centred approach” to the Peng affair, with the governing body adding that it is using “quiet diplomacy” to address the situation.

Image: John Fornander on Unsplash