WTA Tour Seeks Chinese Inquiry Into Player’s Sexual Assault Accusation
PARIS — Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA Tour, called on Sunday for Chinese authorities to investigate allegations of sexual assault made by the Chinese women’s tennis star Peng Shuai against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China.
Simon also called for an end to official Chinese censorship on the subject, and suggested the tour would consider no longer doing business in China if it did not see “appropriate results.”
“Obviously she displayed tremendous courage going public,” Simon said of Peng. “Now we want to make sure we’re moving forward to a place where a full and transparent investigation is conducted. Anything else, I think, is an affront to not only our players but to all women.”
Simon added: “If at the end of the day, we don’t see the appropriate results from this, we would be prepared to take that step and not operate our business in China if that’s what it came to.”
Simon’s comments could endanger the tour’s extensive business relationship with China, where the WTA has 11 tournaments and a lucrative, long-term deal to hold its tour finals in Shenzhen.
“I think everybody fully understands what’s at stake here on many different fronts as we’re going through it,” Simon said. He added, “I think we’re certainly, from players to board to council, fully united that the only acceptable approach is that of doing what is right.”
Challenging China has in the past had significant consequences for sports organizations, including the N.B.A., the Premier League and, more personally, for the Premier League soccer star Mesut Özil, who was virtually erased from the Chinese internet in 2019 after criticizing the treatment of the Uighurs, a largely Muslim minority in the region of Xinjiang.
Tennis’s ties to China are deep though, and even as Simon called for an investigation the tour was making overtures to Chinese fans. After a match at the WTA Finals on Sunday in Mexico — an event relocated from China — and hours after the WTA released a statement condemning the Chinese, the Czech star Karolina Pliskova was asked to film a promotional spot on behalf of the WTA in which she watched messages wishing her well from Chinese fans on an iPad, then recited a short script that culminated with, “I hope to see you soon in China.”
Peng, 35, was once ranked No. 1 in doubles and as high as No. 14 in singles, reaching the U.S. Open singles semifinals in 2014. She has not competed on tour since February 2020, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic shut it down for several months.
Peng made the allegations against Zhang, 75, on Nov. 2 on her verified account on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. She said she met Zhang earlier in her career and had a consensual relationship with him. She said he sexually assaulted her shortly after he stepped down as one of China’s top leaders in 2017.
Peng acknowledged in the post that she could not produce evidence to substantiate her accusation, suggesting that Zhang had been intent on keeping their relationship secret. Her post was taken down within 30 minutes, and searches of her name appeared to be blocked in China as did, temporarily, searches for “tennis.”
Peng has not made any public statements since the post was removed. Chinese officials have not acknowledged the accusations or shown any indication that they intend to investigate them, and there have been concerns in the tennis community and beyond for Peng’s safety.
“We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,” Simon said. But Simon said that no one associated with the WTA Tour, including officials and active players, had been able to reach her directly to confirm her status.
“My understanding is that she is in Beijing in China, but I can’t confirm that because I haven’t spoken directly with her,” Simon said.
Simon acknowledged that the tour may have little leverage to influence Chinese officialdom.
“I’m not sitting here and thinking that I’m going to solve the world’s problems by any means,” he said. “But what I am here to do is that we have an athlete that’s part of the WTA family that’s come out with serious allegations. We’re going to be 100 percent supportive of that, and we want to see a full investigation on this.
“If that isn’t the case and if they are not cooperative, then we’ll have to make some decisions, and we’re prepared to do so, and that’s the best we can do. But we’re not going to back off this position. It’s the right place to be.”
Chinese authorities have routinely retaliated when faced with outside criticism. In 2019, broadcasts of the N.B.A. were temporarily halted on Chinese state television after Daryl Morey, a former Houston Rockets executive who is now with the Philadelphia 76ers, tweeted his solidarity with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, later said that the fallout had cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars.
Last month, Boston Celtics games were pulled from the Chinese internet after Enes Kanter, one of the team’s players, called President Xi Jinping of China a “brutal dictator” on social media.
“Look, I can’t speak to the decisions that the N.B.A. made,” Simon said. “They had, obviously, different issues. But in this situation, the WTA issue is about potential sexual assault of one of our players. That is something that simply can’t be compromised.”
The WTA Tour has increasingly focused on the Chinese market over the last decade, culminating with the 10-year deal to stage the tour finals in Shenzhen that began in 2019. Simon said the Chinese organizers planned to invest “more than $1 billion” over the life of the deal, including the cost of a new stadium, and they doubled the event’s prize money to $14 million.
But the 2020 finals, along with most Chinese tournaments, were canceled because of the pandemic. None of the 11 scheduled WTA tournaments in China were held this year as China continued to restrict foreigners from entering the country. The WTA has managed to fill the slots on the calendar with new or temporary events, often with smaller purses. The WTA Finals, which will conclude on Wednesday, were moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, where prize money is a comparatively low $5 million but enthusiasm and crowds have been significant.