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Ian Williams

Why it matters that tennis is standing up to Beijing

Why it matters that tennis is standing up to Beijing
Peng Shuai (Photo: Getty)
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The commercial road to Beijing is littered with grovelling apologies, cringeworthy kowtows and silent complicity in repression. That’s why the Women’s Tennis Association’s decision this week to suspend all tournaments in China is so important. In doing so the WTA is demonstrating commendable support for the missing tennis player Peng Shuai, but it is also putting moral clarity ahead of business and making a rare stand against the Chinese Communist Party.

In a statement released on Wednesday, WTA chief executive Steve Simon said, ‘In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there.’ He said he had serious doubts that Peng was ‘free, safe and not subject to intimidation’. No other major sports organisation has pushed back against the Party in this way. ‘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,’ he said. ‘I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.’

Peng, one of the most recognisable faces in Chinese sport alleged on her Weibo social media account on 2 November that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier and member of the seven-strong Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo, the country’s highest ruling group, had assaulted her. The post was removed by censors within 20 minutes, and Peng’s account blocked. In a desperate effort to prevent people searching and to close down the conversation, the censors added ‘tennis’ to a list of banned words.

For more than two weeks, nothing was seen or heard of Peng. Then state media released a screenshot of an email (the cursor could still be seen), supposedly from her to Simon, in which she said she was safe and her earlier abuse allegations were untrue. This was followed by a series of staged photos and videos of Peng – in one a director’s cue could even be heard.

The Chinese authorities facilitated two video calls, not with the WTA, but with the International Olympic Committee, in which Peng said she was ‘safe and well’. The IOC appears to have been chosen out of concern for avoiding disruption to the forthcoming Winter Olympics. The IOC says it is engaged in ‘quiet diplomacy’ – so quiet it is almost indistinguishable from complicity.

Much of this is familiar – the disappearance of critics or others who displease China’s paranoid leaders, the forced or concocted statements of repentance or guilt, often recorded by the complicit cameras of state media. But with Peng’s case the propaganda seems especially clumsy and amateurish, suggesting a degree of surprise at the push-back. The Communist party leadership is much more used to dealing with pliant western businesses and sports groups.

The reality is that no statement, photo or video of Peng can be regarded as credible while she remains in China. A Communist party leader of Zhang Gaoli’s seniority is untouchable. He may now have retired, but in the Chinese system, he is still afforded all the privileges and protections of an existing standing committee member. In the dark and paranoid world of top Party politics, allowing one untouchable to be investigated is seen as a risk to all, opening the floodgates to all manner of revenge and plotting. Peng’s allegations will not be investigated. China’s fledgling #MeToo movement will not be allowed anywhere near the pinnacle of power.

For the past two years, there have been no WTA events in China because of the coronavirus pandemic, though it has received substantial Chinese investment in recent years. Nine lucrative tournaments were held in the country in 2019, but Simon has been adamant that Peng’s case is ‘bigger than the business’.

The stance of the WTA and its senior players is all the more commendable when compared with the almost vaudeville performance of Jamie Dimon, the head of investment bank JP Morgan Chase, and a sponsor of tennis in China. He issued not one but two grovelling apologies after joking during a speech to business leaders that his bank would outlive the Communist party (both are celebrating their centenary). Earlier this year JP Morgan bank won approval from Chinese regulators to run a wholly-owned investment bank in the country. That was a landmark moment for foreign banks’ access to the Chinese market and also reflected China’s need to tap expertise in the area of financial markets. In November 2021, during a visit to Hong Kong, Dimon was given special dispensation to avoid the city’s strict quarantine rules. ‘It is a very big bank, and he has very important business in Hong Kong,’ explained Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam. JP Morgan has also been a major sponsor of the Shanghai Masters, a major tennis tournament.

Earlier this week it was reported an episode of The Simpsons that ridicules the Communist party’s censorship of the Tiananmen Square massacre was seemingly censored from Disney’s new streaming service in Hong Kong. In the missing episode, Homer takes the family to see the embalmed body of Mao in Tiananmen Square, whom he describes as ‘a little angel that killed 50 million people.’ They pass a plaque that says: ‘On this site, in 1989, nothing happened’. It is not clear if Disney removed the episode itself or was asked to do so. It would almost be funny if the implications were not so serious.

On Tuesday, in a virtual forum with US business groups, Xie Feng, a Chinese vice-minister in charge of managing China’s relationship with the US, urged his audience to lobby their own government for more China-friendly policies. Companies cannot make money ‘in silence’, he warned. Similar forums have been held with British businesses. The Communist party no longer just wants their investment, it increasingly wants to police the way they think and what they say. It is asking them to take sides, and all too many appear happy to go along – a form of Stockholm Syndrome, where a hostage comes to identify with the values and aims of their captor. This is why the actions of the WTA this week are so refreshing and encouraging.

Written byIan Williams

Ian Williams is a former foreign correspondent for Channel 4 News and NBC, and author of Every Breath You Take: China’s New Tyranny (Birlinn).

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