Despite personal assurances from the Chinese Tennis Association as well as Shuai herself in a dubious retraction statement claiming she was “safe,” WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon remained unconvinced, suspecting that she was being suppressed, detained, or possibly tortured. In response, Simon suspended competitions in the country, drawing the ire of Chinese officials.
In early November, Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, a former prominent leader in the regime close to President Xi Jinping, of coercing her into having sex in a social media post that was promptly scrubbed by Chinese authorities. She suddenly disappeared from public view after the post.
“We have always resolutely opposed the politicization of sports,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing Thursday in response to a question about the WTA’s departure.
Silent on the sexual abuse allegation against Gaoli, the Chinese Tennis Association condemned the WTA’s effective boycott of tournaments in China, according to a message the Wall Street Journal discovered on the Twitter feed of the Global Times, a newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.
When the Journal called the CTA for comment after the tweet was posted Thursday evening, a representative said the workday was over and abruptly hung up when asked for a public-relations contact. While Shuai’s falling off the grid and women’s tennis quitting China commanded media and public attention in the U.S. and other western countries, the news stayed underground in China, which aggressively regulates and censors the circulation of information that could pose a remote challenge to the regime.
A user on China’s Weibo social media platform tried to skirt state surveillance by calling the WTA in Chinese as the “Women’s Off-Table Ping-Pong Association” but to no avail, as the post was removed shortly after.
“All you can say is they have a strong backbone,” the individual wrote, according to the Journal. Users could not search the name of the WTA as of Thursday.
Shuai has not yet appeared on camera to publicly discuss her sexual assault claims.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Simon said when announcing the WTA’s move. China’s mounting record of human rights violations has led some in the international community to question whether the country should keep the honor of hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers have outright demanded the U.S. cancel its participation in the games if the venue is Beijing, the location of the seat of government of the Chinese Communist Party.
Nonetheless, the International Olympic Committee said Thursday that it spoke with Shuai recently and confirmed her well being amid the concerning situation.
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety,” the IOC said, without offering clarification. “We have taken a very human and person-centered approach to her situation.”