Peng Shuai made it clear she knew the stakes.
“Even if it’s like striking a stone with an egg, and courting self-destruction like a moth to the flame, I will tell the truth about you,” the tennis player wrote near the end of her detailed Weibo post accusing former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct. The 35-year-old Peng’s accusation, made early this month, was the most high-profile one in China since the #MeToo movement began.
The Chinese regime clearly saw Peng’s message as a threat. Her post was deleted from Weibo within minutes, and searches for her name were blocked. It also became clear very quickly that Peng herself was in peril. When attempts to reach the former world doubles No. 1 directly proved unsuccessful, Women’s Tennis Association chief executive Steve Simon called out the Chinese authorities. “We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship,” Simon said. “Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”
When Chinese state-run media issued a brazenly bogus statement that it attributed to Peng—“I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine”—Simon called BS. “The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts,” he said of the statement, which he had received as an email from one of her accounts.
By calling out the Chinese government’s lies and obstruction, Simon was in many ways simply stating the obvious. But his willingness to do even that, in the realm of corporate leadership, is radical and transgressive.
In recent days, several other prominent organizations with stakes in the Chinese sports business world have declared their own concern for Peng’s safety, but without using the words “China” or “Chinese.” The International Tennis Federation, another major tennis governing body, put out a limp one-sentence statement: “Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter.” The International Olympic Committee, of which the International Tennis Federation is a constituent, affirmed its commitment to silence, with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing now only months away. “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature,” the IOC said. “This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
From a purely financial perspective, silence is understandable. The NBA lost an estimated $150 to 200 million after then–Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong protestors. And that loss came even after the league’s players and management fell in line to protect the cash flow from a lucrative secondary market. The Turkish player Enes Kanter is one of the few who’s been outspoken about that bought silence.
While Kanter is causing trouble from the bench, Simon is guiding his tour from the helm, and he’s steering directly into the rocks. Rather than sending out an apolitical message hoping for Peng’s personal safety, he has pointed to the involvement of the Chinese government as the reason for his suspicions and concerns.
“When I saw [Peng’s supposed email] come out on the Chinese state media elements in Europe, it became very clear to us that this was a staged statement of some type,” Simon told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday, in an interview which Burnett said was blacked out in its Chinese simulcasts. “Whether she was coerced into writing it or someone wrote it for her, we don’t know, but at this point I don’t think there’s any validity in it, and we won’t be comfortable until we have a chance to speak with her directly and make sure that she knows that we’re worried about her, that we have the ability to provide support to whatever level she wants and that these allegations definitely need to be investigated fully, properly and without any level of censorship.”
When a new round of messaging came out of Chinese state-run media on Saturday, showing Peng eating at a restaurant with friends in videos and photos that were allegedly taken that day—the man speaking to Peng in the video conspicuously says “November 20” during their clearly canned conversation—Simon again was unsatisfied. “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external influence. This video alone is insufficient.”
Simon knows that his outspokenness has the potential to cost the WTA millions. And he’s said that won’t change his mind. “We have to start, as a world, making decisions that are based upon right and wrong, period,” he told Burnett. “We can’t compromise that, and we’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is bigger than the business.”
Simon’s stance is especially remarkable given that growth in China has been the signature strategy of his six-year tenure as the WTA’s chief executive. Starting under the leadership of his predecessor, Stacey Allaster, the WTA responded to Li Na’s groundbreaking triumph at the 2011 French Open by making a heavy push into China, leading the organization to be nicknamed “WTAsia.” Though its 2022 calendar has still not been released, the WTA was poised to have 10 tournaments in China next season. That includes elite WTA 1000 events in Wuhan and Beijing and its year-end championships in Shenzhen. When Simon and the WTA announced their 10-year deal with Shenzhen in 2018, the annual prize purse of $14 million dwarfed the equivalent men’s event in London.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Simon told the New York Times in 2018 of a deal he characterized as “over a $1 billion dollar commitment” to women’s tennis in the region. “It’s going to allow us to do some things as a tour and invest with a long-term vision and planning, and we haven’t had that opportunity before.”
The first event in Shenzhen, in 2019, gained headlines for the record $4.42 million won by champion Ashleigh Barty, but was overshadowed by anti-protest crackdowns in nearby Hong Kong. “More stories like this one will unfold over the next weeks, months and years,” Tumaini Carayol of the Guardian wrote. “Questions will be asked of where the WTA stands and how much its money means to it. The organization will be judged accordingly.”
Whether or not the WTA was right to partner with China in the first place, the tour’s verdict has been resoundingly clear this month. And Simon’s leadership has emboldened others. On Friday in Turin, Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked player in men’s tennis, called Peng’s disappearance “horrifying” and called for the men’s tour to take a similarly aggressive posture. “This is necessary for us to take whatever actions,” Djokovic said. “WTA is willing to pull out from China with all the tournaments unless this is resolved; I support it 100 percent.”
As the #WhereIsPengShuai outcry has gained traction in the wider political world—including from the United Nations and White House press secretary Jen Psaki—Simon has stated that “the WTA is at a crossroads in China.” On Friday he wrote a letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States demanding to speak to Peng “live via teleconference with me with no one else present” and for her allegation to be “investigated fairly, fully, transparently and without censorship.” Failing that, he wrote, “we will have no choice but to seriously consider whether we can play in China again.”
In some ways, this “crossroads” arrives at an ideal time for the women’s tour to leave China. There have been no international sporting events held there since the pandemic began, allowing for something of a clean break. And though Emma Raducanu, the British teenager who just won the U.S. Open, has been touted as one of the most marketable athletes in the world due in part to her Chinese heritage, the game currently lacks stars the caliber of Peng or Li who play under the Chinese flag. There are currently no Chinese players in the top 50 of the WTA singles rankings and just three in the top 100: No. 63 Zhang Shuai, No. 80 Zheng Saisai, and No. 99 Wang Xinyu.
On Wednesday, hours after calling out the sham statement attributed to Peng in Chinese state media, Simon stood on a court in Guadalajara, where the WTA Finals had relocated from Shenzhen due to the pandemic. The prize purse was down from $14 million to $5 million, but the stands were full, in sharp contrast to the yawningly empty stadia which the tour’s stars often played in during Chinese tour spots. On either side of Simon, a mariachi band played festively as Garbiñe Muguruza hoisted the trophy in front of a jubilant crowd. For one week at least, women’s tennis without China sounded pretty good.