Claims of tennis star attack force the West to rethink their approach to China

With just one quickly deleted social media post, Chinese tennis hero Peng Shuai has sparked a wave of international outrage that is reshaping the way the West responds to an increasingly authoritarian government. in Beijing.

On November 2, the 35-year-old man’s accusation of assaulting Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the top political body of the Communist Party of China, 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 the investigation into the allegations – has broken the taboo about how companies operate in the world’s largest consumer market.

“Of course that is just what they should do, but it is remarkable that since almost every other sports league, companies, even government agencies, instead of angering the authorities and risking further access to the Chinese market,” 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, was decisive for the expansion of women’s sport. In 2018, WTA signed a 10-year agreement for Shenzhen, a city of 12.6 square meters in southern China, to host the blue ribbon WTA Finals series.

The WTA’s willingness to be boycotted by Beijing is in stark contrast to many Western groups that have upset the Chinese government or consumers.

Companies from McDonald’s and Calvin Klein to Versace and Mercedes have issued incredible apologies and begging China for forgiveness.

NS most recent parallel was China’s boycott of the NBA – both from fans and state media – after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey sent a tweet in support of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on 2019. The Basketball Association, which celebrates progressive values ​​in the US, said at the time it was “extremely disappointed” by Morey’s “inappropriate remarks”.

Simon Chadwick, an expert in global sports business at Emlyon Business School, said the WTA’s position is a “tipping point” in how Western institutions deal with Beijing.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in 2019 in Hong Kong to show support for Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted in support of pro-democracy protests in the city.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in 2019 in Hong Kong to show support for Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted in support of the city’s pro-democracy protests © Ivan Cheung / SOPA Images / Getty

“Sports organizations realize that they cannot say and do nothing. When it comes to gender equality. . . There is no fallacy: your position must be very clear and very strong,” he said.

However, Sullivan notes, Peng’s case also marks the first major trial of a foreign sports league since a series of events have sour relationship between the West and China.

That includes the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of extremism “wolf warrior” diplomats. It also coincides with broader international awareness of human rights violations in Xinjiang and quickly eroding freedoms in Hong Kong.

While Peng’s case is unlikely to cause an immediate exodus from China, “it’s possible that the cost-benefit calculation for foreign entities is changing.”

“A lot of sports, leagues and clubs have bet big on China. I don’t think we’re at the breaking point. But they can look to see what time the WTA can buy themselves in terms of being able to ‘stand up’ to China,” he said.

Chadwick added that many foreign groups have “started to realize” that China is one of the hardest territories to do business in in the world.

“Clearly, part of the challenge of that territory is the degree of political control that is imposed on anyone seeking to engage with the country.”

The International Olympic Committee, however, has emerged as an exception.

On Sunday, IOC president Thomas Bach said he held a video call with Peng and she seemed “just fine”.

Yaqiu Wang, a China expert at Human Rights Watch, a US-based advocacy group, criticized the commission for “actively cooperating with the Chinese regime in undermining freedom of due to speech and disregard for allegations of sexual assault”.

“The IOC appears to explain its relationship with a major human rights violator regarding the rights and safety of Olympic athletes,” she said.

Joe Biden last week said he was “looking into” a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, which will begin in February, through human rights concerns. That means American athletes will attend the Olympics, but the US will not send high-ranking officials.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, dismissed questions about Peng’s case as “not a diplomatic matter” and on Tuesday criticized “malicious hype” and “politics”. solve” the problem.

However, current and former athletes remain divided over whether global sporting events can an effective forum to advocate for action about Peng’s case.

The US Olympic Committee did not immediately comment on Peng’s case but had previously said it was against boycotting the athlete.

But Angela Ruggiero, 1998 US Olympic women’s ice hockey champion and former IOC executive board member, said: “We need to create a safe environment where athletes feel feel free to speak up and I hope all respective regulators will do all they can to ensure [Peng’s] safety.”

The German Athletes’ Association, an advocacy group for German Olympic athletes, said: “We believe the IOC has a responsibility to exercise human rights accountability and advocate for the safety of Peng Shuai. with the Chinese government.”

However, Chadwick noted that before the Olympics, the protests against Peng could go hand in hand with “political opportunism on the part of the West”.

“I think that could eventually lead to a full-blown boycott,” he said.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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