The case of a missing tennis star threatens WTA’s decades-long courtship of the Chinese market

November 18, 2021, 11:19 AM UTC

In 2018, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) signed a lucrative, long-term deal with China.  

Under the agreement, the WTA Finals—which the association refers to as its “crown jewel”—would be moved from Singapore to Shenzhen, a bustling southern metropolis and one of China’s richest cities, for the next 10 years. The Chinese organizers behind the agreement committed to investing $1 billion as part of the deal, earmarking some of that money for a new tennis stadium in downtown Shenzhen and a doubling of the finals’ cash prize to $14 million.

Now, a missing Chinese female tennis star threatens the WTA’s long-standing courtship of the Chinese market.

Peng Shuai, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, hasn’t been seen or reliably heard from since Nov. 2, when she accused China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault via a blog post on Chinese social media platform, Weibo. Peng’s message rocked the country, where public criticism of the government is rare and personal accusations of misconduct against members of the Chinese Communist Party are all but unheard of. Internet censors scrubbed her Nov. 2 post from Weibo within 30 minutes, and Chinese Internet users haven’t been able to search for her name (彭帅) since.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Chinese state-run media CGTN shared a screenshot of an email Peng had allegedly sent WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon, in which she wrote: “The news… including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.” 

After the purported email was released, Simon said in a statement that the message “only raises my concerns as to [Peng’s] safety and whereabouts.”

Last Sunday, Simon called on Chinese authorities to investigate Peng’s claims and said his organization “expect(s) this issue to be handled properly… investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship.”

Simon’s also suggested that the WTA’s business dealings with China could be damaged if “we don’t see the appropriate results from this,” he said. “We would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to.”

#WhereIsPengShuai?

In the last two weeks, public support for 35-year-old Peng and concerns about her whereabouts have intensified. World tennis champion Naomi Osaka wrote on Twitter on Wednesday: “Censorship is never okay at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and ok.” Former WTA World No. 1 Chris Evert also voiced her concern on Twitter, writing on Sunday: “I’ve known Peng since she was 14. This is very serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated.”

Many doubt the authenticity of the email released by CGTN, which “reads like a hostage statement,” says Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of political science at the University of Canterbury and a specialist in Chinese politics. “If it was written by her, it would not likely have been done so of her own free will.”

In an interview with TIME on Wednesday, Simon said that the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) has told him that Peng is safe. But Simon says he will “remain worried until I am able to speak with her. We have worked every method available to us… voice, digital, tweeting. WeChat. WhatsApp. Text. And none of those have produced a result as of this point.” The CTA and WTA couldn’t be reached for comment.

On Nov. 2, Peng detailed her allegations against Zhang to her half million Weibo followers. (Her account is now blocked.) She wrote that Zhang forced her into sex. The first such encounter occurred seven years ago when Peng was 28 years old and Zhang was 68. She said that they later developed a consensual relationship. “Feelings are a very complicated thing, and it’s hard to explain them clearly,” Peng wrote. Zhang hasn’t publicly responded to her accusations.

China has cracked down on corrupt and misbehaving officials before. In 2007, China’s top authorities waged war against officials who kept mistresses and “second wives,” and in 2013, they went after corrupt officials who took bribes and spent extravagantly.

Peng’s accusations, however, have made her a menace to the state since she’s from outside of the Party apparatus, says Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Peng’s serious allegations make the Party feel as if it’s losing control of its own narrative, she says.

“It’s threatening to them how one woman’s voice can potentially tear down the façade of the party leadership as public servants who work hard [for] the people,” Wang says.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is always trying to “tell a good story of China, internationally and nationally,” Brady says. “A story about rape and sexual impropriety by a former vice-premier is very damaging to the party’s reputation, so it must be squashed,” she says.

China experienced the initial flickers of its own #MeToo movement years ago. But Beijing has largely stifled the voices speaking out against injustices and in support of feminism.

This August, an employee of Alibaba—one of China’s biggest tech firms—posted a harrowing account of sexual assault by a company manager on Alibaba’s internal intranet, which eventually went viral. Her story sparked public outrage and an outpouring of support; Alibaba CEO Daniel Zhang promised to “take care” of the female employee and implement company-wide anti-sexual harassment training and a dedicated hotline for reporting abuse allegations. The next month, prosecutors in China dropped the sexual assault charges against the Alibaba manager, noting that he committed “forcible indecency” that didn’t constitute a crime.

One 30-year-old female professional from Henan province, who wished to remain anonymous, told Fortune that she and her friends have been trying to follow Peng’s case, but “everything [related to her] is wiped out on the [Chinese] Internet. It went silent so quick… overnight, they deleted and blocked everything.”

Another 32-year-old Chinese woman from Shenzhen who works in private equity in Hong Kong and asked to remain anonymous said of Peng’s case: “[Peng said] their relationship was consensual, but it raises the issue of a powerful, older man coercing a vulnerable, younger female. Sadly it’s not uncommon in China—whether among government officials, businessmen or ordinary families. All of us know men, like an older uncle, who has several wives—or much younger mistresses and families on the side.”

Chinese women have largely been supportive of Peng and similar cases, Wang says, because it’s something “that could happen if not to myself, then to my sister and my friends.”

What’s at stake?

The WTA’s Simon said in his Sunday statement that “Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored. Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Women around the world are finding their voices so injustices can be corrected.”

Simon’s outspokenness on behalf of Peng likely risks his organization’s decades-long effort to cultivate China’s growing tennis market.

Sports Illustrated editor Jon Wertheim wrote in a Monday op-ed: “I’m told that China is responsible for at least one-third of WTA revenues.” When WTA inked its 2018 deal with China, former World No. 1-ranked female tennis player Maria Sharapova said, “China is the one that put the money on the line. They are willing to grow our sport.”

In Simon’s Wednesday interview with TIME, the WTA chairman and CEO refuted SI’s figures, which he called “an overstatement”—but admitted that the WTA “[does] realize a lot of revenue from China. The WTA brand resonated and has brought great value to [China]. And it’s brought great value to us.”

Simon says that WTA is prepared to pull out from the agreement that’s lined China up to host 10 WTA events in 2022. Simon told TIME that the organization is open to finding new homes for the events if Peng isn’t soon accounted for, or if her claims aren’t investigated seriously.

China—one of the only places in the world still pursuing a zero-COVID strategy—hasn’t let up on its strict quarantine policies. Should the WTA resume its events in China next year, any athlete, tournament participant, or spectator coming from outside of the country will likely have to endure 21 days of hotel quarantine and severely limited in-country movements. The WTA has already moved its 2021 finals to Guadalajara, Mexico, due to China’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Stacey Allaster, the former WTA CEO who negotiated many rights deals with China during her tenure from 2009 to 2015, told Reuters on Monday that the tennis world is focusing on Peng—and business interests are secondary. It isn’t clear how the WTA’s public demand that Chinese authorities investigate Peng’s allegations will fare, but Allaster says that it’s a “very important moment for WTA’s business and history.”

Peng’s plight and the WTA’s conundrum coincide with a challenging time for professional sports leagues wanting to do business in China. Most recently, Tencent, the Chinese Internet giant that streams NBA games in China, stopped airing Boston Celtics’ games after Celtics’ center Enes Kanter wrote a series of tweets critical of China.

Calls from activists, politicians and citizens to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics over human rights issues are also increasing. In Washington, the White House is leaning towards a diplomatic boycott; and U.S. President Joe Biden likely won’t attend the Beijing Games, according to CNN.

For now, Simon says that Peng’s safety is his organization’s top priority—and that he has no reason to disbelieve that Peng’s blog post is untrue.

Peng wrote on Weibo on Nov. 2, “other than myself, I have no evidence. There are no recordings, no videos… I only have my story.”

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