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Peng Shuai

The brave WTA stands up to China

Peng Shuai, right, at a restaurant in Beijing on 20 November

“The commercial road to Beijing is littered with grovelling apologies, cringeworthy kowtows and silent complicity,” says Ian Williams in The Spectator. That’s why the decision by the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend all tournaments in China next year is such a big deal. It was a response to the disappearance of Chinese player Peng Shuai, who vanished after claiming she had been sexually assaulted by a top former Chinese Communist Party official. Peng, 35, has since been seen only in “staged photos and videos” – in one, you can hear the director giving her a cue – including two calls with the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Some think she has been trying to communicate in code: in one photo she is standing next to a picture of Winnie the Pooh, an image the Chinese use to mock President Xi Jinping.

Peng Shuai next to a picture of Winnie the Pooh, an image the Chinese use to mock President Xi Jinping. Twitter

The WTA is making an enormously brave decision, says Courtney Walsh in The Guardian – it stands to lose up to $1bn from the cancelled events. Much of the credit must go to its CEO, Steve Simon. A former journeyman professional who played mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1981, the 66-year-old American is known for putting “the interest and welfare of his players first”. Unlike the heads of every other big sporting body – the IOC and the men’s tennis association have refused to follow suit – he is placing “principle ahead of profit”.

Peng is merely the latest example of “how quickly the rich and powerful can fall from grace in China”, says Gideon Rachman in the FT. In 2011 Forbes noted that 72 of the country’s billionaires had “died premature deaths in the previous eight years”. Since the billionaire founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, “dared to criticise Chinese regulators in October 2020”, he has barely been seen in public. I’ve seen this up close. In 2014 I met a famous Chinese TV anchor in Davos – months later he was arrested, and he “has not been seen in public again”. When I asked after him the following year, one of his colleagues “pulled a face and ran to the other side of the room”. Such is life in a country where anyone can be fingered for “corruption” if they get above their station. As Joseph Stalin’s secret police chief, Lavrenti Beria, once said: “Show me the man and I will find the crime.”

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