China: World Tennis Association’s Support Stripped Peng Shuai of ‘Freedom of Expression’

Shuai Peng of China reacts during her Ladies' Singles first round match against Anabel Medina Garrigues of Spain on day two of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 25, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Chinese state media and the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) responded with outrage on Thursday to the international Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) suspending all tournaments in China over the mistreatment of Peng Shuai, the tennis star who accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her a decade ago.

WTA chair Steve Simon announced on Wednesday that all games in China and Hong Kong will be suspended until a “full and transparent investigation – without censorship” is conducted into Peng’s allegations.

“I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault. 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,” Simon said.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times, bizarrely argued on Thursday that the WTA deprived Peng Shuai of her “freedom of expression” by standing up for her because the tennis association is supposedly “forcing her to complain in accordance with the imagination and expectations of Western public opinion.”

In other words, Hu was asserting that Peng wanted her post accusing Zhang of sexual assault to magically vanish from the Chinese Internet hours after she wrote it and she was speaking from the heart when she resurfaced after a mysterious three-week absence to hold an oddly-staged videoconference with International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials.

Steve Simon has been vocally skeptical of the IOC teleconference and believes two emails he received from Peng during her disappearance were either written under duress or written by someone else and sent in her name. Some other critics of how China has treated Peng, notably including the European Union, have also indicated they want “verifiable proof” Peng is safe and able to speak freely.

Hu turned these concerns on their head by asserting the WTA, EU, and others concerned about Peng’s well-being are the ones coercing her into a “fabricated” narrative that she has “lost her freedom.”

The Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) on Thursday “strongly condemned” the WTA’s suspension of Chinese events.

The CTA expressed “indignation and firm opposition” to the WTA’s action, dismissing its “so-called concerns” about Peng’s well-being.

“The unilateral decision by the WTA in the name of ‘protecting its players’ was made based on fictitious information, the CTA said, noting that it not only beset and hurt the relevant athlete herself, but will also severely harm the female tennis players’ fair opportunities to compete. It will damage the interest of the entire sport of tennis,” reported Hu’s newspaper, the Global Times.

The WTA’s bold stand against Chinese Communism might be inspiring other organizations to follow suit. On Thursday, the men’s professional tennis ATP Tour issued a statement cautiously supportive of the WTA.

ATP chair Andrea Gaudenzi expressed optimism that “sport can have a positive influence on society” and “having a global presence gives us the best chance of creating opportunity and making an impact,” which sounds like reassurance his organization does not plan to impose its own boycott. However, Gaudenzi made it clear China has not done enough to address international concerns about Peng.

“The situation involving Peng Shuai continues to raise serious concerns within and beyond our sport. The response to those concerns has so far fallen short. We again urge for a line of open direct communication between the player and the WTA in order to establish a clearer picture of her situation,” he said.

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