Andréa Worden | China Change
In sharp contrast with the beginning of the 2022 tennis season, we haven’t heard much from players or fans with respect to Peng Shuai’s plight. The “Where is Peng Shuai?” t-shirt campaign at the Australian Open in January, which drew global attention to Peng Shuai’s silencing and disappearance by the Chinese authorities, has not been repeated since. Perhaps some players and fans accepted the International Olympic Committee’s propaganda spectacle (orchestrated by the Chinese Communist Party) at the Beijing Olympics in February, in which Peng Shuai made several carefully stage-managed and scripted appearances to signal that she was fine, and that she had not disappeared. Or, more likely, the tennis community, along with much of the rest of the world, is consumed by Russia’s war on Ukraine and the plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees.
Asthe 2022 professional tennis season proceeds (the Miami Open will wrap up on April 3), the headlines are understandably dominated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; and in the world of tennis, how the war is affecting Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian tennis players, their families, and compatriots. Tennis players from many countries, including Russia, have called for peace and an end to the war, and several top players have individually pledged donations to humanitarian relief efforts to support of Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. Belarusian tennis star Victoria Azarenka, a longtime member of the WTA’s Players Council, spoke out in support of Peng Shuai in mid-January and urged her to get in touch with the WTA because the organization had not been able to reach her. Now, as would be expected, Azarenka is using her strong and principled voice to call for an end to war in Ukraine and express support for the victims of the war. The situation in Ukraine, and Belarus’ support for Russia, combined with other personal issues, appear to be taking an emotional toll on Azarenka. She indicated in a statement following an abrupt and unexplained early exit from a match during the Miami Open on March 27 that she hopes “to take a break and be able to come back.”
In early March, the tennis governing bodies (WTA, ATP, ITF) and the four Grand Slam organizers ––the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open–– launched a new initiative, “Tennis Plays for Peace,” to support humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine. The seven entities made a joint charitable donation of $700,000 USD through Global Giving’s Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund and the Ukraine Tennis Federation. The tennis community’s show of unity and purpose in support of Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees is impressive and inspiring, to be sure. But what about Peng Shuai, who in 2014 achieved the rank of world No. 1 in doubles, a first for a Chinese tennis player, male or female, and was a popular and beloved member of the WTA tour? Chinese authorities continue to deprive her of her rights to freedom of speech, movement, and association as well as her right to pursue her claims of sexual assault against a former high-ranking Chinese official. Peng, stripped of any agency or free will, has been compelled to retire from professional tennis by CCP authorities, who are controlling her every move. Peng has also been cut off from the WTA tennis family; no one has been able to reach her.
Peng’s captors are no doubt telling her that she has been forgotten–– the world and the global tennis community are singularly focused on the war in Ukraine (or whatever the CCP is calling it). They might have told her that the #WhereIsPengShuai hashtag is no longer getting much attention on Twitter and the t-shirt campaign at the Australian Open in January has not been repeated, demonstrating, CCP officials would insist, that the propaganda spectacle at the Beijing Olympics, carried out by IOC president Thomas Bach, was successful.
While the ATP Tour has taken a “business as usual” approach to Peng Shuai’s predicament and scheduled four tournaments this fall in China, Steve Simon and the WTA have not wavered in their demands of the Chinese government regarding Peng Shuai’s well-being and freedom. Prior to Simon’s announcement on December 1, 2021 suspending all WTA tennis tournaments in China and Hong Kong in response to the Chinese government’s treatment of Peng and concern about the safety and well-being of other WTA players if they were to play in China now, 10 events had been scheduled provisionally for fall 2022.
As of March 29, the WTA calendar shows no tennis tournaments scheduled in China, and reveals a month-long gap in the Hologic WTA Tour schedule from late September until October 24, presumably when most of the China tournaments would have been held. The WTA’s steadfast advocacy and concern for Peng Shuai played a role in helping to secure its first title sponsor since 2010, the medical diagnostics company Hologic, which describes itself as an “innovative medical technology company with a passion for women’s health.” In an interview with the New York Times, Hologic indicated that WTA’s “strong stance” with respect to Peng Shuai was “a factor in sparking Hologic’s interest” in discussing a possible partnership with WTA. Lisa Hellmann, a senior vice president at Hologic told the Times: “We’ve been watching very closely some of the brave and really high-integrity moves that the WTA has made almost by themselves…. It put their calendar at risk. It put a huge audience at risk, but they stood up for what they believed to be right and stood up for their players and therefore, by extension, the voice of women throughout the world.” The multi-year deal between WTA and Hologic is “the largest global sponsorship in WTA history” and the first worldwide sponsorship for Hologic. Steve MacMillan, CEO of Hologic, recently said that their “core passion as a company is to champion women’s health globally” and described Hologic’s partnership with WTA as a “perfect fit.”
In a mid-March interview with the BBC, Steve Simon said that a decision would be made “very, very soon” on whether the currently suspended China tournaments would be canceled for 2022; the WTA Board is due to meet soon in Miami and a final decision may be made then. The WTA has not wavered in its principles or conditions for holding tournaments in China, which include a “full, fair and transparent” investigation by Chinese authorities into Peng’s sexual assault allegations and the ability of Steve Simon to have a private, unmonitored conversation with Peng Shuai. Simon told the BBC: “We will never stop working on the process. We are strong and we will be resilient. What we have said we were going to do so far, we are not going to waver from that. But no significant progress has been reached.”
Simon said that cities in Europe, the Americas and Australia have indicated interest in hosting tournaments that would otherwise have been held in China this fall. Stay tuned.
Andréa Worden, J.D., M.A., is a human rights advocate, translator and writer, whose work focuses primarily on the PRC party-state’s interactions with the UN human rights mechanisms. Follow her on Twitter @tingdc