China meets its match in women’s tennis

The Women’s Tennis Association defends a top Chinese player who disappeared after accusing a Communist Party leader of sexual assault.

China's tennis star Peng Shuai plays during the Australian Open last January.

 Something in the nature of sports – its universal appeal, its purity and joy – often wields power outside of sports. A table tennis match in 1971 helped open ties between China and the United States. The two Koreas have shared teams in international matches. Black pro athletes paved the way for racial integration in the U.S. In many American neighborhoods, midnight basketball games help suppress gangs.

Now professional women’s tennis is having its moment in bringing change outside the game itself – and in the world’s most populous nation.

Unlike many other international sports groups that have buckled under pressure from China to keep access in its large market, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) is standing up to Beijing on behalf of Peng Shuai, a champion Chinese player. Since Nov. 2, when she posted accusations of sexual assault against a prominent Communist Party leader, Ms. Peng – once No. 1 in the world in doubles – has disappeared.

The WTA has called for “independent and verifiable proof” of her safety and whereabouts, even threatening to end a long-term deal to hold its finals in China. It is not satisfied that an email in her name claiming “everything is fine” is valid. And it continues to stand up for the rights of women to have their complaints of gender-based harassment and violence adjudicated.

“Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored,” the WTA said. “In all societies, the behavior she alleges that took place needs to be investigated, not condoned or ignored. We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward.” The WTA also seeks a “full and transparent” investigation of her claims against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier.

The WTA’s clout relies to a large degree on tennis’s global appeal. More than one-fifth of all tennis players worldwide are Chinese. When many of the top players in tennis ask, “Where is Peng Shuai?” they are standing up for the universality of her rights, a universality that also lies at the heart of sports.

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