The WTA Takes An Unprecedented Stand
The WTA takes an unprecedented stand for sport on China, mutual incomprehension manifests, the IOC 'quietly' capitulates
Yesterday WTA CEO Steve Simon suspended all tournaments in China and Hong Kong due to ongoing concerns about Peng Shuai:
Simon: The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation… None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players… I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault. Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.
Simon later added to CNN:
“We’re hopeful we get to the right place, but we are prepared, if it continues as it is — which hasn’t been productive to date — that we will not be operating in the region”…“We haven’t canceled, as of yet, but we’re prepared to get to that point.”
This is an unprecedented response from a modern sports organisation to the Chinese state. It is unprecedented both because of its explicit demand that China stop censoring information around Peng Shuai while also conducting an investigation into a formerly senior member of the Chinese Communist Party, and because it represents the only time a major sport has prioritised its own values over revenue with regard to an increasingly authoritarian China. Neither of the demands, an end to censorship around the player and a sexual assault investigation into Zhang Gaoli, look remotely likely to materialise. But the WTA have taken a stand for individual freedom at the possible expense of what is reported to be approximately one third of its revenue.
Simon later added to AP:
“I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that are likely going through Peng right now. We hope that she feels that none of this is her fault and that we’re very proud of her. But the one things we can’t do is walk away from this, because if we’re walking away from the key elements — which is obviously not only her well-being, but the investigation — then we’re telling the world that not addressing sexual assault with respect to the seriousness it requires is OK… And it’s simply something that we can’t let happen.”
These few sentences zoom in on one of the most conflicting concerns with this situation, in that continued pressure on China by the WTA will almost certainly make Peng’s life difficult. The WTA are clearly operating on the words from Peng’s now deleted/censored Weibo post, accusing Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, in which she wrote:
“Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.”
That’s an extraordinary brave sentence. But the WTA have no way of knowing, and will continue to have no way of knowing while she’s being censored, monitored and/or coerced, what Peng wants now, in the aftermath. This is the part of the issue which sits most uneasily. The WTA understands the importance of setting a general precedent here so that its players can be protected from harm in the future, while also understanding that doing so is fraught with individual consequences for Peng.
‘Peng Shuai will not be let free, if ever. The Chinese government doesn’t have to put her in jail in order to imprison her. Her home can be turned into a prison with surveillance, by both minders and cameras. It’s unlikely they will let her leave China to play tennis again; if they do, she will be sealed off by minders. The WTA or any of her tennis friends outside of China will not be able to speak to her freely. She’s 35 years old, China will likely force her to retire and make her disappear from public view. It’s called “social death.” My friend opined: this may be the best outcome Peng Shuai gets; it could be much worse.’
The first, and most immediately concerning, issue surrounds the rest of Peng Shuai’s life. From a professional tennis player, mostly free to live her life, to potential ‘social death’ in the space of weeks. The second is what 2nd and 3rd order collateral effects this may end up having on other Chinese tennis players. Not to mention that the possible loss of China’s multiple large events could threaten the wider health of the Asian tennis swing overall, including tournaments in Japan (it becomes harder to justify players travelling to Asia without China’s core of current events). These consequences would all be the casualties of issues significantly larger than tennis.
Last week I wrote about the underlying, and intensifying, mutual incomprehension between China and much of the West.
…democracy and individual freedoms are viewed as a neutral fact of the optimal society by much of the West. The Chinese state views them as just another, less attractive, ideology, competing aggressively and existentially against their own.
The Peng Shuai situation will not be, and has not been, an isolated incident. China will violate the human rights which much of the West holds sacred again and again simply because those same expectations of individual rights are not held sacred, or even particularly important relative to their overarching missions, by Beijing.
The immediate reaction from Chinese state affiliated media was therefore predictable:
wta @WTA"With the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong."
Beijing views the WTA’s response as the ‘West’s attack on the Chinese system'. The WTA and Steve Simon view what is happening as a necessary stand for women’s rights. This was made most clear by this powerful paragraph from Simon’s statement:
None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.
This is an obvious and irreconcilable clash of current Western vs Chinese values. Equality for women is seen as vital for much the West, but increasingly in China under Xi Jinping, it’s firmly on the decline. Whether it’s state run masculinity campaigns, the dwindling female representation in Chinese government, or its disappearing and reported imprisonment of #metoo activists, the Chinese state views feminism through a lens which would appear utterly alien to many Westerners.
It would seem therefore that we are at an impasse, unless Beijing performs an extremely unlikely 180 degree turn.
Quiet diplomacy… quiet capitulation
There’s an old saying attributed to writer Upton Sinclair which goes:
‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’
WTA CEO Steve Simon seems to have understood regardless. Should the WTA’s actions threaten or damage the commercial viability of the women’s tour as a whole in years to come, he may well be out of a job. But as of now, other sporting organisations, most notably and unsurprisingly the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have not understood the same thing.
After the WTA announced that they would be suspending tournaments in China, the IOC released this statement:
…just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her (Peng Shuai). We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.
There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation. Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organisations. We are using “quiet diplomacy” which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.
The IOC’s efforts led to a half-hour videoconference with Peng Shuai on 21 November, during which she explained her situation and appeared to be safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in. This was reconfirmed in yesterday’s call.
Neither of the behind-closed-doors IOC video calls have been followed by a transcript or a release of footage. The IOC president Thomas Bach, who conducted the first call, has also formerly worked with the man who Peng Shuai accused of sexual assault, Zhang Gaoli. Possible merits of ‘quiet diplomacy’ shouldn’t be discarded, but when the IOC’s actions here are readily contributing to Chinese state propaganda, to the point where Beijing can simply point to the IOC as an example of support from an internationally renowned organisation, a rethink is absolutely necessary. The IOC, in relentlessly downplaying what has happened, is very publicly choosing revenue over all of the larger issues at play. And while the IOC justifies this quiet diplomacy as ‘the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters’, in doing so they directly and extraordinarily refuse to classify this treatment of women and the suppression of sexual assault allegations as a ‘humanitarian matter’. Whether the IOC is aware or not, their actions currently serve as a self-preserving mouthpiece of an authoritarian regime, all in the name of running a smooth and lucrative Olympics next year in Beijing. In reality, the IOC have been anything but ‘quiet’ when trying to mute concern for Peng Shuai. Perhaps ‘selectively quiet’ diplomacy might be a more accurate description given how deafeningly tone deaf the IOC have been to the wider humanitarian issues they claim to care about.
Pressure now continues to mount for tennis’ other primary organisations, the four Slams and the ATP, to follow the WTA’s lead. This will likely be difficult for the ATP, who count a board member and tournament representative in Asia who is also the Managing Director of Juss Event, China’s largest sports/events management company (which happens to stage the Masters 1000 event in Shanghai, China’s Formula 1 race, and owns 10% of ATP Media). Update: ATP Statement calling for communication between Peng Shuai and the WTA, but no suspension of ATP events in China.
The WTA have taken a principled stand which is reverberating around the world. Mutual incomprehension between much of the West and China has now officially reached the point where premier sporting events are being suspended. But the WTA represents small fry to the Chinese state in the broader landscape of leverage. For this kind of mutual incomprehension to really penetrate and impact Beijing, far more sports and organisations would need to stand side by side with the WTA’s Steve Simon. And as the International Olympic Committee have ‘quietly’ demonstrated, bravery, especially of the self-injurious variety, is in desperately short supply.
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