With a single social media post quickly removed, Chinese tennis hero Peng Shuai has unleashed an international outcry that is reforming how the West responds to an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing.
The 35-year-old’s claim on November 2 of assault by Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the Chinese Communist Party’s highest-ranking political body, was removed from China’s internet within minutes.
But a wave of support from the sport’s top stars and the Women’s Tennis Association – which not only demands her safety but also an investigation into the allegations – has broken a taboo on how companies operate in the world’s largest consumer market.
“Of course it’s just what they have to do, but it’s remarkable because virtually every other sports league, company, even government cave rather than disgusting the authorities and risking access to Chinese market access,” says Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.
China, home to about a quarter of the world’s tennis players, is crucial to the expansion of women’s sports. In 2018, the WTA signed a 10-year agreement for Shenzhen, a 12.6-meter city in southern China, to host the blue-ribbon WTA Finals series.
The WTA’s willingness to be driven out by Beijing stands in stark contrast to many Western groups that have upset China’s government or consumers.
Companies from McDonald’s and Calvin Klein to Versace and Mercedes have issued hefty apologies and China begged for forgiveness.
The most recent parallel was the Chinese boycott of the NBA – both from fans and state media – after Daryl Morey, manager of the Houston Rockets, sent a tweet in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019. The basketball association, which advocates progressive values in America , at the time it was “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate remarks”.
Simon Chadwick, an expert in global sports at Emlyon Business School, said the WTA’s position was a “tip” in how Western organizations handle Beijing.
“Sports organizations realize they can say and do nothing. When it comes to gender equality. . . there is no doubt: your position must be very clear and very strong, ”he said.
These include the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of China ultranationalist “wolf fighter” diplomats. It also coincides with broader international awareness of human rights violations in Xinjiang and the fast erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
While Peng’s case was unlikely to trigger an immediate business exodus from China, Sullivan said that “perhaps the cost-benefit calculation for foreign entities will change”.
“Many sports, leagues and clubs have bet big on China. I do not think we are still at breaking point. “But they might see what play WTA can buy for itself in terms of ‘standing up’ to China,” he said.
Chadwick added that many foreign groups are “beginning to realize” that China is one of the most difficult areas in the world to do business.
“Clearly, part of the challenge of that area is the level of political control that is being exercised on anyone who seeks to connect with the country.”
However, the International Olympic Committee emerged as an outlier.
IOC President Thomas Bach said on Sunday that he had made a video call with Peng and she seemed to be doing well.
Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based campaign group, criticized the committee for “actively cooperating with Chinese authorities to undermine freedom of speech and disregard alleged sexual assault”.
“The IOC seems to be praising its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes,” she said.
Joe Biden said last week that he was “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, which would start in February, is over human rights issues. That would mean American athletes participating in the Games, but the US would not send high-ranking officials to attend.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, dismissed questions about Peng’s case as “not a diplomatic matter” and on Tuesday criticized “malicious outrage” and “politicization” of the issue.
Yet current and former athletes remain divided over the issue of whether global sporting events were an effective forum to advocate for action about Peng’s case.
The U.S. Olympic Committee did not immediately comment on Peng’s case, but had previously said it was against athlete boycotts.
However, Angela Ruggiero, a 1998 Olympic women’s ice hockey champion for the United States and former IOC executive board member, said: “We need to create a safe environment where athletes feel comfortable talking and I hope all the respective governing bodies do everything they can can ensure [Peng’s] safety.”
The Association of German Athletes, an advocacy group for German Olympians, said: “We believe the IOC has a responsibility to comply with its human rights prudential investigations and to advocate for Peng Shuai’s safety in the Chinese government.”
However, Chadwick noted that before the Olympics, protests over Peng could be accompanied by “political opportunism on the side of Western interests”.
“I think it could eventually lead to a full-scale boycott,” he said.
Additional post by Emma Zhou in Beijing