The Women’s Tennis Association has made a reluctant but lucrative return to China, while silence and mystery remains over the plight of Peng Shuai, reports Asia Correspondent Debi Edward
Words by Lottie Kilraine, Content Producer
A nearly four-year absence of elite women’s tennis in China has come to an end after a boycott, triggered by the disappearance of former player Peng Shuai, was lifted despite criticism from human rights groups.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) kicked off its first tournament in China on Monday.
But the international group Human Rights Watch has called the move a "huge disappointment", and others have demanded to know what has happened to the the former No 1-ranked doubles player.
Who is Peng Shuai?
One of China’s most recognisable sports figures, Peng Shuai is a three-time Olympian and grand slam doubles champion.
She is a former top ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
But in 2021 she disappeared from the world's stage shortly after she accused a senior Chinese government official of sexual assault.
Peng had claimed she was forced to have sex with retired vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who she said had coerced her into sex during a years-long on-off relationship.
It took less than 30 minutes for China’s censors to delete all traces of the sexual allegations made by the tennis player, including all relevant keywords and links to online discussions.
Following the accusation, Peng disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the world’s biggest tennis stars and the United Nations to demand answers as to her whereabouts – as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
When did the WTA boycott start?
Soon after the controversy exploded in late 2021, the WTA announced it would suspend all tournaments in China, with the chairman and CEO Steve Simon saying he had “serious doubts that (Peng) is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”
At the time, Mr Simon said the WTA would not return until there was a “full and transparent investigation” with no censorship, and until there was sufficient evidence to allay concerns about Peng’s safety and whereabouts.
The WTA had already pulled its tournaments in China in 2020 due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
But despite the lack of such an investigation, Mr Simon announced this April that the suspension, which he called a “principled stand,” would come to an end by September 2023.
"After 16 months of suspended tennis competition in China and sustained efforts at achieving our original requests, the situation has shown no sign of changing," he said in April.
"We have concluded we will never fully secure those goals, and it will be our players and tournaments who ultimately will be paying an extraordinary price for their sacrifices."
In the past, around 10 women’s tournaments were held each year in China, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the WTA and offering some of the highest prize money on the tour for the players.
The Guangzhou Open kicked off on Monday, with another tournament scheduled later in September in the Chinese city of Ningbo, and finally the China Open in Beijing from September 30 to October 8.
Where is Peng Shuai?
In November 2021, two weeks after she raised her sexual assault allegations, the English language Chinese State media channel reported that Peng had sent an email to the head of the WTA to reassure everyone she is fine.
But many questioned the authenticity of the email, with suspicions being raised over the language used by the missing tennis player.
It had opened with "Hello everyone" or 大家好 (Dà jiā hâo) which would be used in Chinese for delivering a speech - and it ended with a patriotic wish for Chinese tennis to "get better and better".
It also had the mouse cursor bizarrely evident in the second line of the letter which led the WTA to say they had "a hard time believing" it came from the player herself.
A day later, Chinese state media posted pictures of Peng purporting to be from her social media account, showing the player posing with soft toys and holding a pet cat, with the message "happy weekend"- but again serious doubts remained.
At the time, Mr Simon said the WTA had made contact with its Chinese counterparts but attempts to speak to Peng directly had proved unsuccessful.
Then weeks later, in an interview with a Singaporean television reporter, Peng denied making any allegations against the government official, saying: "First and foremost, I must emphasise I have never said or wrote anyone sexually assaulted me, this is a very important point."
But each appearance raised more questions among campaigners and opened the question that if Peng hadn't written the 1,600 word blog post accusing Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, then who had done?
Peng last appeared in public in February 2022 when she met Olympic officials at the Beijing Winter Games and then was interviewed by independent French sport news site L’Equipe.
In April this year, Mr Simon said that the WTA has been in contact with people close to Peng, and “are assured she is living safely with her family in Beijing.”
Peng “cannot be forgotten through this process,” he added in the statement.
However, the WTA’s decision to resume play has been criticised by some human rights groups and athletes.
The international group Human Rights Watch called the move a “huge disappointment,” urging the world to “keep Peng Shuai’s case in the public eye.”
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…