With a single social media post that was swiftly removed, Chinese tennis hero Peng Shuai sparked an international furore that is reshaping how the west responds to an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing.
The 35-year-old’s November 2 allegation of assault by Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the Chinese Communist party’s highest ranking political body, was removed from China’s internet within minutes.
But a wave of support from the sport’s top stars and the Women’s Tennis Association — demanding not only her safety but also an investigation of the allegations — has shattered a taboo of how companies operate in the world’s biggest consumer market.
“Of course it’s only what they should be doing, but it’s noteworthy because virtually every other sports league, company, even government caves rather than pissing off the authorities and risking access to Chinese market access,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute.
China, home to about a quarter of the world’s tennis players, is crucial to expanding the women’s sport. In 2018 the WTA signed a 10-year deal for Shenzhen, a city of 12.6m in southern China, to host the blue-ribbon WTA Finals series.
The WTA’s willingness to be ostracised by Beijing stands in stark contrast to many western groups that have upset China’s government or consumers.
Companies from McDonald’s and Calvin Klein to Versace and Mercedes have issued grovelling apologies and begged China for forgiveness.
The most recent parallel was the Chinese boycott of the NBA — both from fans and state media — following Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey sending a tweet in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests in 2019. The basketball association, which touts progressive values in America, said at the time it was “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate remarks”.
Simon Chadwick, an expert in the business of global sports at Emlyon Business School, said the WTA’s position was a “tipping point” in how western organisations dealt with Beijing.
“Sport organisations realise they cannot say and do nothing. When it comes to gender equality . . . there is no equivocation: your position must be very clear and very strong,” he said.
That includes the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of China’s ultranationalist “wolf warrior” diplomats. It also coincides with broader international awareness of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the rapid erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
While Peng’s case was unlikely to spark an immediate business exodus from China, Sullivan said that “maybe the cost-benefit calculation for foreign entities is changing”.
“A lot of sports, leagues and clubs have bet big on China. I do not think we are at breaking point yet. But they might look to see what kind of leeway WTA can buy for itself in terms of ‘standing up’ to China,” he said.
Chadwick added that many foreign groups were “beginning to realise” that China was one of the most difficult territories in the world in which to do business.
“Clearly, part of the challenge of that territory is the level of political control that is exerted upon anyone who seeks to engage with the country.”
The International Olympic Committee, however, has emerged as an outlier.
On Sunday the IOC president Thomas Bach said he held a video call with Peng and that she appeared to be “doing fine”.
Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a US-based campaign group, criticised the committee for “active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault”.
“The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes,” she said.
Joe Biden last week said he was “considering” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, due to start in February, over human rights concerns. That would mean American athletes taking part in the Games but the US would not send high-ranking officials to attend.
Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, has dismissed questions over Peng’s case as “not a diplomatic matter” and on Tuesday criticised “malicious hyping” and “politicisation” of the issue.
Still, current and former athletes remain divided over the issue of whether global sporting events were an effective forum for advocating for action on Peng’s case.
The US Olympic Committee did not comment immediately on Peng’s case but has previously said it was against athlete boycotts.
However, Angela Ruggiero, a 1998 Olympic women’s ice hockey champion for the US and former IOC executive board member, said: “We need to create a safe environment where athletes feel comfortable speaking up and I hope all of the respective governing bodies do all they can to ensure [Peng’s] safety.”
The Association for German Athletes, an advocacy group for German Olympians, said: “We believe the IOC has a responsibility to fulfil its human rights due diligence and to advocate for Peng Shuai’s safety with the Chinese government.”
Yet Chadwick noted that ahead of the Olympics, protests over Peng could be coupled with “political opportunism on the part of western interests”.
“I think that could ultimately lead to a full-scale boycott,” he said.
Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing