The Chinese Communist Party is facing a growing campaign of public outrage due to the currently unknown whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who has not been seen in public after she published a post with allegations of sexual assault against Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli two weeks ago.
The 35-year-old tennis player posted an allegation that the top Chinese politician, who is 75 years old, pressured her into sex after he invited her to play tennis with him and his wife. Shuai said that she never consented that afternoon. Shuai posted the allegation online and has not been heard of ever since.
The WTA stands by Peng Shuai, threatens to cut tournaments in China
The Chinese state-controlled media published an email, allegedly authored by Shuai herself and sent to the head of the WTA, saying that those allegations are not true and that the post was supposedly released without her consent and that she is neither missing nor unsafe. However, the legitimacy of this email has been questioned by many, including Steven Simon, the head of the WTA, who said in a statement that “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received”.
The WTA has not only made rhetorical calls for the safety of Shuai, as the organization has threatened to cancel their tournaments in China if the government does not give believable information about the whereabouts of Peng, with the organization telling Reuters that if the CCP does not do that then the WTA “is prepared to do what is right”.
The Chinese government, who already has a history of kidnapping individuals who might be uncomfortable for the regime, has said they have no information of where Peng is. When asked by reporters about the issue, the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Zhao Lijian said that since “this is not a foreign affairs matter” he is “not aware of the relevant situation”.
WH Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the administration is “deeply concerned” about the wellbeing of Peng and that they were calling the Chinese government for “independent, verifiable proof.”
Peng Shuai has also received support from sports stars from the tennis world. Serena Williams tweeted that she was “devastated and shocked” over the news. Naomi Osaka has also tweeted a post demanding to know where Peng is, and when asked about the situation. During a press conference, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic said that it is “shocking that Peng Shuai is missing.”
WTA faces China, while the NBA cows to Beijing
The Women’s Tennis Association firm challenge to the CCP, with the Association, not only casting doubt in the official version given by the Beijing government but also willing to take a financial hit by threatening to cancel the tournaments there, has been remarkedly different to the way that other sports associations or sports stars have dealt with the Human Rights violations committed by the Beijing government, especially the NBA.
Back in 2019, when thousands of Hong Kong residents were protesting in the streets against Beijing’s attempts to increase its control in the autonomous city, the former General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted an image supporting the protesters, which caused a major outrage in China. As a reaction to the Chinese pushback, the NBA issued conflicting statements over the issue, with the English one defending the rights of the owner to speak up while the one in Chinese only described the tweet as “inappropriate speech”.
LeBron James also addressed the issue in an extremely cautious way. When asked by the press, LeBron said that the Rockets GM “wasn’t educated on the situation.”
Although the NBA and LeBron have taken an overcautious approach towards any issue with China (something they certainly have not done in domestic controversies), not all sports stars or organizations have been as timid. NBA player Enes Kanter has regularly criticized the Beijing government over its Human rights violations in Tibet, Xinjiang, and has also called out LeBron over his silence towards the widespread human rights violations against the Uyghur.
Soccer player Antoine Griezmann also set a strong stance against human rights violations in Xinjiang, with him cutting commercial ties with the Chinese tech giant Huawei over the abuses against the Uyghur people.
The WTA, Enes Kanter, and Antoine Griezmann have clearly set an example of what to do when confronted with Human Rights violations from China. It is up to the NBA and other associations to either follow their lead o continue cowing to Beijing’s wishes.