By Francesca Chiu

Since Chinese tennis player and two-time Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai publicly accused retired Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault early this month, she has all but disappeared from the public eye. This has raised significant concerns over her safety, with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) issuing a statement on November 14 asking for a fair investigation into the allegations and an end to the censorship of her accusations by Chinese authorities.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. File photo: Claude Truong-ngoc, via Flickr.

Following that, Chinese state media outlets have posted pictures and videos of Peng on social media as proof of her freedom and wellbeing. These have only served to raise more questions, with the WTA releasing another statement that said the photographs and videos “don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released an image of a smiling Peng engaged in a video call with IOC President Thomas Bach.

The WTA and Steve Simon, its CEO and chairman, have garnered praise for being the first international sports association to threaten to exit China over alleged human rights abuses. And while the association may yet go back on its promise, there can be no doubt that the move marks a departure for how global sports groups handle one of their biggest and fastest-growing markets.

But the bigger truth is that the WTA had already effectively pulled out of China – or rather, it was kicked out – and this is exactly what freed up both the association and its star players to become far more critical of the Chinese government.

Since the WTA Shenzhen Open in January 2020, all international women’s tennis events in mainland China – seven last year and ten this year – have been cancelled due to the country’s stringent travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. While almost all international sporting events in China have been cancelled for the same reason, the WTA has been harder hit than most. By comparison, the WTA’s men’s counterpart, the Association of Tennis Professionals, was only forced to cancel four events in mainland China in 2020 and three in 2021.

Yet the WTA has bounced back without China’s help. Before the pandemic, it held around 60 international events a year, with that falling to fewer than 30 in 2020. This year, however, has seen the total shoot back up to 67, suggesting that the WTA – despite setbacks to expanding its business in China – has been able to organise enough events to keep its calendar well-stocked.

Of course, the relationship is not only about the number of events, but the size and sources of sponsorship money, which is where most funding for international sport comes from. China had become a massive WTA sponsor in recent years: in 2017 the group announced that Shenzhen would host the WTA Finals – a tournament for the top eight singles players and top eight doubles teams – for an entire decade.

Shenzhen’s bidding was supported by the Gemdale Group, one of China’s largest real estate developers, which pledged US$14 million in recurring annual prize money, roughly double the total for the 2018 WTA Finals and the largest sum ever offered for either women’s or men’s tennis tournaments. The media was quick to suggest that this prize money was the main reason Shenzhen defeated Singapore, Manchester, St Petersburg and Prague in its bid to host the finals, on top of which the Shenzhen government promised to build a brand-new tennis stadium specifically for the event.

That sponsorship jackpot in Shenzhen was the culmination of a long push by the WTA, which since the early 2010s has held more events in China and spent a great deal of time and effort liaising with ever more Chinese businesses and government organisations. With the finals set to be held in Shenzhen from 2019 to 2028, the WTA hoped women’s tennis would enjoy a higher profile in the Chinese sporting market – not just in terms of sponsorships but with fans across the country, who could provide another major revenue stream.

This made it even more important for WTA events in China to resume, and while the association attempted to negotiate with the Chinese government to relax travel restrictions, Beijing’s strict zero-Covid policy has kept the women of international tennis – and almost all other foreign athletes – out of the country.

Thus, with all WTA events in China cancelled and the 2021 WTA Finals moved to Mexico, the relationship between the Chinese government and the WTA had long since gone cold when latter threatened to withdraw. By the time its CEO Simon called on Beijing to release Peng, the organisation had already been losing money in the mainland for two years.

Still, Simon’s statements do make the WTA the first international sporting organisation to threaten to actively withdraw from China over human rights concerns, although it is still unclear how the WTA will proceed. After all, in 2015 it signed an exclusive 10-year streaming rights deal with popular Chinese video platform iQiyi that commits it to providing live broadcasts for more than 2,000 live matches every year.

But unlike basketball or football, tennis is an individual sport, and each player is their own agent. In recent days, many players including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have posted the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai on their official Twitter accounts, supporting Peng and questioning comprehensive censorship of the issue inside China. And these same tennis stars face few repercussions from challenging Beijing now that record prize money in Shenzhen is no longer on the line.

It is this public support from fellow athletes which suggests that while the WTA’s next steps are not yet fixed, individual tennis players could very well withdraw from tournaments held in China over Peng’s apparent detention even when the country eventually relaxes its travel restrictions. With the organisation’s relationship with China “at a crossroad,” in the words of Simon, the WTA’s threat to end its business operations in the country could come good more quickly, and easily, than many expect.

Francesca Chiu is a PhD candidate focused on urban marginality and spatial politics in Myanmar at the University of East Anglia and the University of Copenhagen. She is a former researcher at the Centre for Civil Society and Governance at the University of Hong Kong. Follow her on Twitter.

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