The women’s professional tennis tour is immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to the disappearance from public life of the tennis star Peng Shuai.
The move comes one month after Peng claimed on her social media channels that she was sexually assaulted by a top member of the Chinese government. The Chinese government quickly moved to scrub its internet of all mentions of the incident and all discussion of Peng, who disappeared from public life for more than two weeks.
Peng, a Grand Slam doubles champion and three-time Olympian, resurfaced late last month in a series of appearances with Chinese officials, including in a video conference with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, which will bring the Winter Games to Beijing in February.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Steve Simon, the chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon.
“I very much regret it has come to this point. The tennis communities in China and Hong Kong are full of great people with whom we have worked for many years. They should be proud of their achievements, hospitality and success. However, unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China. China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice.”
The move by the WTA marks a major turning point in how sports leagues have dealt with China, a vast market that has provided a huge opportunity for growth among leagues including Premier League soccer, the N.B.A., professional tennis and golf. However, doing business in China has become complicated in recent years as the country’s government has become increasingly authoritarian and cracked down on free speech and political protest. Its treatment of Muslim minorities has been deemed genocide by the United States and lawmakers in several nations.
Peng, 35, accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice premier of China, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having had an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang.
She quickly dropped out of public life. As demands for an inquiry grew louder, China’s state-owned broadcaster released a message that it claimed was from the tennis star recanting her accusations.
“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” it stated before calling her accusation of sexual assault, made just weeks ago, untrue. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”