WTA’s hardline approach to Peng Shuai presents China with new problem

Analysis: Up to now sports associations have rapidly backed down from rows with Beijing

It is perhaps no coincidence that Chinese state media published an email purportedly written by the missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai shortly after reports emerged that the Biden administration was considering a “diplomatic boycott” of February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing.

China says the Games are apolitical and – in the words of its embassy in Washington – “a grand gathering for countries and a fair stage for athletes from all over the world to compete”.

But in truth sports and global politics have collided this week, as calls grow for China to produce evidence of the wellbeing of one of its most high-profile international athletes. On Friday, the UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s office called for proof of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts and demanded “an investigation with full transparency” into her sexual assault allegations against a former senior politician.

This is far from the first time that a Chinese personality has suddenly ceased to be seen in public. Other examples include the business magnate Jack Ma, the TV star Zhao Wei, and the once high-flying Chinese Interpol president Meng Hongwei. While the nature of their hiatuses may differ, all have fed into a narrative in the west that Beijing considers itself unbound by the rule of law and transparency.

The new element in this case is the confrontational response from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). Up to now, sports associations, franchises and other entities that rely on the Chinese market to grow their businesses have rapidly backed down from rows with Beijing on politics and human rights.

Two years ago, when the then Arsenal footballer Mesut Özil posted on Instagram about the treatment of minority groups in Xinjiang region, his club distanced itself from their midfielder by claiming it had “always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”.

The same year, when the general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, Daryl Morey, tweeted in support of protests in Hong Kong, the Rockets’ owner, Tilman Fertitta, reprimanded him. “Listen … @dmorey does NOT speak for the @HoustonRockets… we are NOT a political organization,” he tweeted.

Though the circumstances are different – Özil and Morey were merely commenting on events in China – the message from the WTA that it is not backing down in the case of Peng presents Beijing with a problem it has not encountered before.

Mark Dreyer, the Beijing-based founder of China Sports Insider, said the WTA’s response to Peng might reflect a calculation it has made about its ultimate dependence on the Chinese market.

“It is true that in the last decade WTA had made tremendous investments in China, but since Covid, as China has cancelled all international sporting events, WTA has also learned to live without the China market,” Dreyer says.

One worry for China, he thinks, is that the saga may ultimately turn out to be a Pandora’s box for sports and franchises reassessing the gigantic Chinese market.

“A lot of people will be watching carefully to see what happens with the WTA over the longer term. Different leagues have different priorities, but as it becomes increasingly untenable to operate in both China and the rest of the world, China may be the market that loses out,” he said.

For Mareike Ohlberg, of the German Marshall Fund thinktank, the release of the purported Peng email could in part be a blunt attempt by the Chinese state to remind people of its ultimate power. “[It shows] ‘we are telling you that she is fine, and who are you to say otherwise?’ It’s not meant to convince people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state,” Ohlberg tweeted.

With relations already frosty, the Peng saga will exacerbate the west’s mistrust of China even further. There have been precedents where the initial official line on missing people turned out to conceal the fact the persons involved had been held incommunicado. This is what observers of the Peng case ultimately fear.


Vincent Ni China affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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