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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, December 1, 2021

 
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WTA CEO Steve Simon announced the Tour has suspended all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to China suppressing Peng Shuai.

Photo credit: WTA Tour

The WTA has taken a human rights stand suspending all tournaments in China.

WTA CEO Steve Simon announced the Tour has withdrawn its tournaments from China, including Hong Kong, effective immediately in response to China's suppression of Peng Shuai. Simon said concerns for the safety of WTA players and staff contributed to the decision to depart China.

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"In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and as seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault," Simon said in a statement. "Given the current state of affairs, 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."




The WTA announcement comes a week after the Tour issued a statement calling for a “full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into Peng Shuai’s allegation of sexual assault."

Former world No. 1 doubles player Peng Shuai was missing after publicly accusing a Chinese Vice Premier of sexually assaulting her in a social media post on November 2nd. Since Peng's allegation and subsequent disappearance became global news, China’s state media has issued both images and video of the former Wimbledon doubles champion having dinner and appearing at a local tennis tournament meant to show she is safe.

The WTA say the video fails to address key questions about Peng Shuai's safety and ability to freely speak her truth.

The videos "don't alleviate or address the WTA's concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion,” the Tour said. The WTA said neither photos nor video address the serious concerns it has for her safety nor does it address the serious sexual assault claim Peng Shuai publicly made against China's former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.  She says he "forced" her to have sex at his home after they played tennis together.

The 35-year-old Peng Shuai alleges she and the now 75-year-old Zhang Gaoli had what she’s called an extra-marital “relationship” for several years. The former Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles champion said he broke off their relationship as he rose higher up the political ranks over fears she would expose. Then, Peng Shuai says, he invited her to his home to play tennis and sexually assaulted her.



Given the gravity of these allegations and Peng Shuai’s safety, the WTA calls for a full, transparent investigation into her claims.

"Peng’s message has been removed from the internet and discussion of this serious issue has been censored in China," Simon said. "Chinese officials have been provided the opportunity to cease this censorship, verifiably prove that Peng is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair, and transparent manner.

"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."

It's a powerful and ethical stand in support of Peng Shuai and human rights and it will come at quite a cost.

It is estimated about 30 percent of the Tour's revenues emanate from its 10 tournaments in China. The WTA Finals, the Tour's crown jewel and most lucrative tournament, has debuted in Shenzhen in 2019 offering a Tour-record $14 million in prize money. The 2021 WTA Finals were staged in Guadalajara, Mexico earlier this month for what was supposed to be a one-year run.

The Tour's successful expansion into China in recent years has been a boon tapping into an expansive fan base. Ultimately, the WTA said the risk to players and staff is not worth the rewards of doing business in China.

"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," Simon said. "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."

Credit the WTA for valuing human rights above profits.

WTA CEO Simon said he's gratified by support the Tour has received and hopes international leaders will continue to speak out in support of Peng Shuai's cause and call for a complete and transparent independent investigation into her claims.

"To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out," Simon said. "The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramification."

 

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