The tennis star’s offensive claims forced the West to reconsider its approach to China


A post on social media by Chinese tennis hero Peng Shuai was quickly deleted, sparking an international commotion and is reshaping the Western response to Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian government.

The 35-year-old man accused Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the highest political body of the Chinese Communist Party, of the attack on November 2, which was deleted from the Chinese Internet within minutes.

But the wave of support from the sport’s top stars and the Women’s Tennis Association—not only for her safety, but also for investigations into these allegations—breaks the taboo on how the company operates in the world’s largest consumer market.

“Of course, this is just what they should do, but it is worth noting that almost all other sports leagues, companies, and even the government have succumbed, rather than angering the authorities and risking access to the Chinese market,” the president of the University of London Said Jonathan Sullivan. Nottingham China Policy Research Institute.

China has about a quarter of the world’s tennis players, which is essential for expanding women’s sports. In 2018, WTA signed a 10-year contract with Shenzhen, a city with a population of 12.6 million in southern China, to host the WTA Finals Series.

WTA’s willingness to be rejected by Beijing is in stark contrast to many Western groups that disturb the Chinese government or consumers.

Companies from McDonald’s and Calvin Klein to Versace and Mercedes issued humbling apologies and begged China for forgiveness.

The most recent similar incident was the boycott of the NBA by Chinese fans and official media after Houston Rockets head coach Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019. The basketball association, which touts the progressive values ​​of the United States, said at the time that it was “very disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate remarks.”

Simon Chadwick, an expert in global sports business at the Elion Business School, said that the WTA’s position is how Western organizations respond to Beijing’s “turning point.”

In 2019, hundreds of protesters gathered in Hong Kong to show support for Houston Rockets head coach Daryl Morey, who tweeted his support for the city’s democratic protests
In 2019, hundreds of protesters gathered in Hong Kong to show support for Houston Rockets head coach Daryl Morey, who tweeted his support for the city’s democratic protests © Ivan Cheung/SOPA Images/Getty

“Sports organizations realize that they cannot say nothing and do nothing. When it comes to gender equality… there is no ambiguity: your position must be very clear and firm,” he said.

However, Sullivan pointed out that Peng’s case also marked the first major test for a foreign sports league, as a series of events deteriorated the relationship between the West and China.

This includes the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of China’s ultra-nationalist “wolf war” diplomats. This also coincides with the wider international awareness of Xinjiang’s human rights violations and the rapid erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Although Peng’s case is unlikely to trigger an immediate outflow of Chinese companies, Sullivan said that “maybe the cost-benefit calculations of foreign entities are changing.”

“A lot of sports, leagues and clubs have placed big bets in China. I don’t think we have reached the tipping point. But they may see what kind of leeway the WTA can “stand up” for China to fight for,” he said.

Chadwick added that many foreign groups “begin to realize” that China is one of the most difficult regions in the world to do business.

“Obviously, part of the challenge facing the territory is the level of political control imposed on anyone seeking contact with the country.”

However, the International Olympic Committee has become an outsider.

On Sunday, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach stated that he had a video call with Peng and she appeared to be “doing well”.

Wang Yaqiu, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a US-based campaign organization, criticized the committee for “actively cooperating with the Chinese authorities, undermining freedom of speech and ignoring allegations of sexual assault.”

“The International Olympic Committee seems to value the relationship with the main human rights abusers, rather than the rights and safety of Olympic athletes,” she said.

Joe Biden said last week that because of human rights issues, he is “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics scheduled to begin in February. This means that American athletes participate in the Olympics, but the United States will not send high-level officials to participate.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian refuted the doubts about the Peng case, saying it was “not a diplomatic issue” and criticized the “malicious hype” and “politicization” of the issue on Tuesday.

Nonetheless, current and former athletes still diverge on the question of whether global sporting events are an effective forum for advocating action on the Peng case.

The US Olympic Committee did not immediately comment on Peng’s case, but had previously expressed its opposition to the boycott of athletes.

However, Angela Ruggiero, the 1998 U.S. Olympic women’s ice hockey champion and former member of the International Olympic Committee Executive Committee, said: “We need to create a safe environment where athletes can speak freely with confidence. I hope all relevant Management agencies can do their best to ensure [Peng’s] Safety. “

The German Athletes Association is an advocacy organization for German Olympic athletes. He said: “We believe that the International Olympic Committee has the responsibility to perform its human rights due diligence and advocate Peng Shuai’s safety to the Chinese government.”

However, Chadwick pointed out that before the Olympics, protests against Peng may be combined with “political opportunism in Western interests.”

“I think this may eventually lead to a total boycott,” he said.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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