Where is Peng Shuai?
On the night of November 2, 2021, Peng Shuai, a retired Chinese professional tennis player, published a 1600-word essay describing her volatile and coercive relationship with former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaol on the Chinese social media site Weibo. Her post included an accusation that he once “forced” her to have sex with him. Twenty minutes later, the post was deleted, and Peng disappeared for two weeks.
She ostensibly reemerged on November 17 when the state-run China Global Television Network tweeted a screenshot of an email allegedly sent by Shuai to Steve Simon, the chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the global governing body for women’s tennis. In this email, Shuai wrote that a November 14 post on the WTA’s website, which called for an investigation into her allegations, was published without her consent or verification and that “the news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, [was] not true.” The email continues, “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home, and everything is fine.” Due to the origin of this text and the fact that it seemed to contradict Shuai’s Weibo post, the WTA remained concerned for her safety. They “repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail” and, joined by the White House press secretary, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and many high-profile tennis players and other athletes, pressed for “independent and verifiable proof that she [was] safe.”
Four days later, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), announced that he had communicated with Peng in a video call that was also attended by the Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, Emma Terho, and Chinese IOC Member Li Lingwei. The call was not recorded, but the IOC released an image of Shuai smiling from a computer monitor. According to the IOC, Shuai “appeared to be relaxed” and explained that she was “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time.” They made plans to meet for dinner in January 2022, when Bach visited Shuai’s hometown of Beijing for the winter Olympics.
Perhaps in an effort to assuage Western journalists and the WTA, Peng Shuai appeared prominently at these Olympics: she was seated conspicuously in VIP seating supporting Chinese athletes in several events; she attended the promised dinner with IOC officials; and she participated in her first on-camera interview post allegations, with a neutral journalist from the French newspaper L’Équipe. Questions were sent in advance, and Chinese IOC officials were present during the interview. Again, Shuai denied that a sexual assault had occurred and denied that she had ever alleged one in the first place. She claimed that she “never said that anyone made [her] submit to a sexual assault,” that there was an “enormous understanding” about her post, and she herself, not Chinese censors, had erased it because she “wanted to.” She did not address why she created the post, nor would she directly answer whether she had been in trouble with Chinese officials due to the post.
The IOC would not comment on whether they believe Shuai is safe and speaking freely; a spokesperson told journalists that the IOC is simply “a sporting organization” whose “job is to remain in contact with” Shuai and “to carry out personal and quiet diplomacy.” He also added he didn’t “think it’s for [the IOC] to be able to judge” whether her allegations of sexual assault should be investigated. The WTA took a much firmer stance, stating that her interview did “not alleviate any of [their] concerns about her initial post” and repeated the necessity of “a formal investigation by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity for the WTA to meet with Peng privately to discuss her situation.”
The WTA’s support of Shuai extended beyond their public statements. In December 2021, they canceled all events in China, including the WTA finals, which China had a contract to host each year until 2030. WTA chairman Steve Simon explained that he didn’t “see how [he could] ask athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.” This decision had potentially disastrous financial implications for the WTA: more than one-third of their annual revenue comes from China in tournament fees (China hosts more tennis tournaments than any other country) and prize money. They were also forced to scramble to find a new location for the WTA finals, eventually staging the event in Guadalajara, Mexico. But Simon, with unanimous support from WTA members, was adamant that holding events in China under these circumstances would go against the WTA’s ideals. “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.”
The financial fears associated with suspending play in China may have been unnecessary. In March 2022, the WTA announced “probably the biggest [sponsorship] in women’s sports” with Hologic, a medical device and diagnostics company that focuses on women’s health. Rather than being wary of the WTA’s strong stance against China, a senior vice president for global human resources and corporate communication at Hologic said that the WTA’s decision was a “catalyst” for the sponsorship. Though the details have not been publicized, it has been described as “significantly larger” than the WTA’s previous deal with Sony, which amounted to around $15 million annually. This sponsorship would represent a sizable portion of the WTA’s annual revenue, which in 2018 it reported as $102.6 million. It offers a viable alternative to revenue generated by holding tournaments in China, as well as support for the WTA’s moral stance.
It’s been over a year since Peng Shuai’s Weibo post, but the true story of her allegations, and the extent to which the Chinese government censored her, will likely never be known. As of January 2023, no one at the WTA has spoken with Shuai since her post. Despite some reports that the WTA will return to China in 2023, Steve Simon told Reuters that “a return to the region will require a resolution to the Peng situation.” In another interview, he elaborates on what this “resolution” would look like, saying, “we’re comfortable that she’s safe, and we know she’s in Beijing, which is great. We want that. But we haven’t received the assurances that we want with respect to the investigation that we requested. What’s the real story? That’s all we’ve asked for.” It’s unclear when or if these questions will be answered. Regardless, in a time when corporations are increasingly called to place morality above profit, the WTA and its chairman illustrate both the importance and the difficulty of that endeavor.