Beijing warns against ‘politicising’ sport after WTA pulls out of China over Peng Shuai case

03-Dec-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Beijing has said politics should be kept out of sport following the Women’s Tennis Association’s decision to withdraw from China over the case of former champion Peng Shuai, who accused a former senior official of sexual assault.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the ministry, responded to the withdrawal, which includes tournaments in Hong Kong, by saying: “We’ve already expressed our view. We’ve always been against behaviours politicising sports.”

Over the past three weeks, the ministry has repeatedly sidestepped questions about the case, saying the question was not related to foreign affairs. Last week, it called for “malicious speculation” about Peng to stop and warned against politicising the case.

The WTA’s chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement on Wednesday the organisation had been left with no choice and demanded verifiable proof that the former French Open and Wimbledon doubles champion was safe. He also called on Beijing to fully investigate her accusations.

“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete [in China] when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Steve Simon, the WTA’s chair and chief executive, said in a statement overnight.

“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.”

China hosted 19 WTA tournaments in 2019 which offered a total of $30.4 million prize money.

While there have been no tournaments in the country since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the organisation had signed a deal to host the WTA Finals in Shenzhen until 2030.

The southern Chinese city hosted the season finale for the first time in 2019 with a $14 million prize purse.

The state-owned tabloid Global Times tweeted on Friday that the Chinese Tennis Association had expressed “firm indignation and firm opposition” to the decision, which was based on “fictitious information”.

“It not only beset and hurt the relevant athlete herself, but also will severely harm the female tennis players’ fair opportunities to compete,” the CTA said, according to Global Times.

So far no other international sports organisation is taking similar action. China is to host the Winter Olympics in February.

Many tennis stars showed support for the WTA’s decision. “I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world,” said Billie Jean King, the multiple former grand slam winner and long-time campaigner for gender equality.

“The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players. This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”

Novak Djokovic, the men’s No 1 and co-founder of the Professional Tennis Players Association, said he fully supported the WTA’s stance.

“We don’t have enough information and I think it’s a very bold, very courageous stance from WTA,” he told reporters at the Davis Cup in Madrid on Wednesday, adding Peng’s health was of the “utmost importance to the world of tennis”.

In early November Peng, 35, accused a former high-ranking Chinese official of pressuring her into sex in a social media post that was soon deleted.

According to the WTA, the senior official at the centre of the sexual assault allegation is former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli. Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on the allegation.

There was also blanket silence about the WTA’s decision in Chinese media or social media.

As international pressure mounted following weeks of absence from the public spotlight, Peng appeared in a number of photos and videos circulated by Chinese state media and took part in a video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.

State media also published a purported email from Peng to Simon that said the allegations of sexual assault were not true and that she had not been missing but “resting at home” a move that only deepened suspicions about her personal freedom.


Category: China

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