'Pandora's box': China blasts WTA over $1.4 billion withdrawal

Steve Simon, pictured here at the WTA Finals in 2019.
China has lashed out at Steve Simon and the WTA. Image: Getty

Chinese authorities have lashed out at the WTA after the head of the women's tennis tour suspended all events in China due to the situation surrounding Peng Shuai.

Last month Chinese player Peng made a sexual assault accusation against a former high-ranking government official and subsequently disappeared from public view.

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While Peng has since reappeared in Beijing after vanishing for three weeks, the WTA says China isn't doing enough to investigate her allegations amid concerns she is being coerced and censored.

On Wednesday, the WTA made the bombshell decision to suspend all tournaments in China, calling for further assurances of Peng's well-being and an investigation before it returns to the lucrative Chinese market.

"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation," chief executive Steve Simon said, suggesting she was pressured to retract her allegation.

Needless to say, the move hasn't gone down well in China.

Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly mention the WTA on Thursday but pointedly said that China "opposes the politicisation of sports".

In an editorial, the Global Times newspaper - published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily - said the WTA was betraying the Olympic spirit and bringing politics into tennis.

“The WTA has acted as a lever of Western public opinion against China’s political system,” it said.

“To this end, they repeat the old tricks and once again set the precedent of boycotting sports events for political purposes. This creates new uncertainties for international sports.

“The WTA has put on an exaggerated show. Their pursuit of 'political correctness' is surely top-notch even among Western politicians. To further hype the case, the WTA even disclosed some private information about Peng.

Peng Shuai, pictured here with Shuai Zhang at the Australian Open in 2020.
Peng Shuai with Shuai Zhang at the Australian Open in 2020. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“It is the WTA which claimed Peng’s assurance that 'everything is fine' is not credible, and it has been pushing accusations over and over again that she was acting. The WTA’s actions are seriously coercing Peng.

“Such coercion has deprived Peng of freedom of expression, forcing her to complain in accordance with the imagination and expectations of Western public opinion, fabricating that she has lost her freedom.

“Peng is an athlete who is destined to be connected with the West. The message the WTA sent to her is that as long as she wants to satisfy the West, she will have to endorse the latter’s accusations against China.

“The WTA is expanding its influence in a speculative way. They are bringing politics into women’s tennis deeply, and are setting a bad example for the entire sporting world.

“They are opening a Pandora’s box. They are betrayers of the Olympic spirit.”

China brings in an estimated $1.4 billion in funding for the season-ending WTA Finals, plus 10 other tournaments they host each year.

IOC says it had second video call with Peng Shuai

A former World No.1 doubles player, Peng wasn't seen in public for nearly three weeks after she posted a message on social media in early November accusing China's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex.

Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng's accusation and the topic has been blocked on China's heavily-censored internet.

Peng is a three-time Olympian as well as Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion.

She did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children's tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament's organisers showed.

And the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had held a second video call with the 35-year-old player on Wednesday following one late last month.

The IOC said it had offered her support, would stay in regular touch, and had agreed a personal meeting in January.

She appeared to be "safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in", it added in its statement on Thursday.

with AAP

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