The WTA should stick to its principles and not resume playing tournaments in China until the Peng Shuai issue has been resolved despite the financial impact of its stand, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch has urged.
The women’s tour was widely praised for suspending its tournaments in the country after former doubles world number one Peng said in a now deleted 2021 social media post that a senior Chinese government official had sexually assaulted her.
The WTA was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, posting eight-figure losses in 2020 and 2021, and last week said it would soon announce whether or not it would return to a country in which it is heavily invested.
Reversing its decision without China meeting its request for a meeting with Peng would open the WTA up to accusations of putting profit before principles, said Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch.
“I have tremendous sympathy for the WTA because I know it’s losing a lot of money but I have to say it got so much praise for standing up for the values it believes in contrary to a lot of other businesses,” Wang told Reuters in a Zoom interview from New York.
“At the time it happened, I felt very inspired and I really hope it (WTA) can stick to what it said. I understand it’s a lot of money but human rights are more important.
“Honestly, it should care for its own players.”
China was central to the WTA’s aggressive expansion into Asia and in 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics, it opened an Asia-Pacific headquarters in the capital.
The country was staging two WTA events in 2008 but that grew to nine with a total prize purse of $30.4 million in 2019, its last full year of operations in the country.
That included a staggering $14 million on offer for the first edition of the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, after the city saw off rival bids from Singapore, Manchester, Prague and St Petersburg to secure a 10-year deal for the season-ending event.
The Beijing office and another in Shenzhen, where the construction of a new multi-million dollar stadium for the WTA Finals was also announced, remain open.
Other parts of the jigsaw of organisations that run professional tennis are preparing for their returns to China after being kept out during the pandemic while the country pursued a zero-COVID policy.
The men’s ATP tour will play four tournaments, including the Shanghai Masters, with a total financial commitment of more than $16 million on its Asia swing this year.
The International Tennis Federation, which runs lower level events, will stage five women’s and four men’s events in June.
The ATP said in 2021 that the Peng situation raised “serious concerns” and urged a line of open direct communication between her and the WTA. The ITF added Peng’s wellbeing was its primary concern.
Crucially, neither said it was pulling out of China.
The WTA, however, put its massive investment in China on the line by suspending operations when fears for Peng’s safety grew after she briefly disappeared from public view and denied making the accusation against the senior official.
It is now more than a year since Peng last made a public appearance at the Beijing Winter Olympics and conducted an interview with French publication L’Equipe.
The Chinese Tennis Association did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on whether it was aware of her whereabouts on Thursday.
The WTA said in January that it was confident Peng was safe in Beijing but still wanted a private meeting with the now 37-year-old.
“While we have always indicated we are hopeful we will be in a position to again operate WTA events in the region, we will not compromise our founding principles in order to do so,” it said in a statement.
The WTA could face criticism if it resumes its business in China without meeting Peng personally, Wang said.
“I still give credit to the WTA for saying what it said, because all businesses expected the market to open. So it took a risk at that time,” Wang added.
“If it’s reversed, the message really is the WTA eventually succumbed to business and to profit and the WTA is no different to other businesses. I really wish for this not to happen.”
The WTA told Reuters last week it could not offer an interview with Chief Executive Steve Simon at this point.
Wang said the other tennis bodies returning to China this year could still play a part in highlighting Peng’s plight.
“When they have a presence in China they must use every opportunity to raise Peng’s case with Chinese officials in their communications and in meetings. When they have the camera, they must talk about Peng.
“Anybody in China who has been born and has grown up in the system knows the risks and she did it (spoke out). It’s a courageous act. I feel talking about her case to an extent keeps her safe.”
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