Tennis player Peng Shuai is missing after accusing a Chinese official of sexual assault

WTA makes plea to China, but top-ranked Shuai hasn’t been seen for days

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Peng Shuai has vanished after an explosive claim involving a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party.
Peng Shuai has vanished after an explosive claim involving a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party.
Photo: Getty Images

A top-ranked tennis player has not been heard from for days since detailing sexual abuse allegations against former Chinese official Zhang Gaoli. Like the social media post that was quickly taken down, Peng Shuai has also vanished.

On Saturday, the WTA Tour put out a statement expressing concern over Peng’s treatment.

“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored,” read the statement from WTA Chairman Steve Simon. “Her accusation about the conduct of a former Chinese leader involving a sexual assault must be treated with the utmost seriousness. In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward.”

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The caveat of course, is that we can’t know what has happened. But China has limited the ability of internet users to even search the term “tennis”, according to this New York Times story, so it certainly doesn’t seem like this is all some misunderstanding.

Simon’s statement can’t be read as anything less than the emergency that is in front of them.

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“We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,” Simon said. “Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”

It doesn’t sound like Simon has much confidence that China will behave transparently, or fairly. And why should he? Peng Shuai is missing to her friends and colleagues.

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There is a long history of nations with troubling human rights records trying to use international sports for domestic purposes. The Sochi Olympics bolstered Vladimir Putin’s poll numbers at home, and at the extreme, there was the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Jesse Owens upended Adolf Hitler’s message of genetic superiority.

In recent years, FIFA and the IOC have awarded games to Qatar and China. The stories of worker abuse as Qatar builds facilities are horrific, and China has been repressive at best and was pressed by President Joe Biden on Monday about human rights.

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Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics in February. And an athlete who criticized the government is missing.

There was long an idea that the international spotlight that sports pressures nations to be on their best behavior. To tamp down on anti-social impulses and comport with international values.

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And yet.

When the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of Hong Kong back in 2019, just the opposite occurred. China punished the NBA by limiting broadcasts of the popular sport. The NBA apologized to China, and Morey apologized as well.

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In 2020, protest against China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims by a former EPL soccer player prompted China to curtail China’s state CCTV broadcasts of Premier League games.

Even this year, a pro-Tibetan statement from player Enes Kanter prompted China to censor Celtics broadcasts in the nation. For context, the Turkish Kanter has been targeted by Turkey after criticizing what he considers a repressive government there, and has become an active voice in support of human rights everywhere.

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“Brutal dictator of China, Xi Jinping, I have a message for you and your henchmen,” Kanter said in the video. “Free Tibet, free Tibet, free Tibet.”

The NBA’s presence in China hasn’t changed China’s approach to Tibet or Hong Kong, China has now imposed a harsh national security law that makes dissent difficult at best, but the interaction has certainly changed the NBA.

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While the league is noted for players using their voices in support of Black Lives Matters, the league has been muted in making similar critiques of a state business partner. Those broadcasts are worth a significant amount of money to leagues, but only when they air.

The WTA has similarly embraced China when it comes to tournaments and travel in the last two decades. It is a huge market, and in 2011 Li Na won the French Open and the Australian in 2014 to consolidate the sport’s popularity there. The WTA had nine tournaments in China in 2019 including the year-end championships, and has a major media sponsor from that market.

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To its credit, the WTA has made a fairly explicit and public complaint in the wake of Peng’s disappearance.

In light of the way China has treated dissidents, there is no reason for optimism here, even though her exact circumstances are unknown. But it is clear that doing business with human rights violators doesn’t really compel them to meet international norms. And there is the very real danger that it corrupts our own.