IN THE WORLD of sport, it was a remarkable rebuke of China’s ruling Communist Party. On December 1st the Florida-based Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said it would stop holding tournaments in mainland China and Hong Kong in response to the silencing of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis star, after she had publicly accused a former senior Chinese leader of sexual assault. Steve Simon, the WTA’s boss, used language typical of human-rights groups, not of firms with profits at stake. He accused China’s leadership of failing to handle the matter credibly: “I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”
For years most executives of global sporting leagues, as well as athletes with high profiles in China, have strained to avoid offending Chinese officials lest they lose access to a lucrative market. But as China’s human-rights abuses have become more egregious, the reputational risk of keeping quiet has grown. In November the International Olympic Committee held a video call with Ms Peng and gave a sunny assessment of her well-being. It was widely viewed as a craven effort to help China stifle controversy in the buildup to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) has tried to keep on China’s good side since a team executive’s tweet in 2019, expressing support for protests in Hong Kong, prompted a temporary ban in China on NBA broadcasts. Adam Silver, the NBA’s chief, said the episode cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars.
The WTA had already burned its bridges in China in November, when Mr Simon publicly urged Chinese leaders to investigate Ms Peng’s allegations. They had been published on her social-media account and quickly censored. The alleged abuser, Zhang Gaoli, retired as deputy prime minister in 2018 and has not commented. Mr Simon also demanded proof of Ms Peng’s safety. Famous champions like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka tweeted their concern, using the hashtag #whereispengshuai. Contrived-looking videos of Ms Peng appearing relaxed in Beijing were released online by state media. They also published a purported email in which she distanced herself from the allegations.
By pulling out of China, the WTA faces losses of tens of millions of dollars annually, including sponsorships for its tournaments (nine had been scheduled in China for 2022) and fees for online streaming rights. Athletes who have backed Ms Peng have also taken a risk, including that of being shut out of China and thus being denied the opportunity of winning prize-money and endorsements there.
There has been less sporting criticism of other human-rights problems in China, including the mass internment of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group. On November 30th a minor NBA player, Enes Kanter Freedom of the Boston Celtics, called for big-star support for persecuted Uyghurs. “There are way bigger things than money,” Mr Freedom said. “It’s definitely time for athletes to stand up for the things they believe in.” But tennis’s act will be hard for others to follow. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Ballsy”