Women's Tennis Stands Up To China : Consider This from NPR Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai made an assault allegation in November, then disappeared from the public eye. She has since re-emerged, but in protest of her treatment, the Women's Tennis Association's has now suspended all tournaments in China.

That decision by the WTA could cost the organization and its players hundreds of millions of dollars, maybe more, in revenue. And it's the threat of losing that kind of money that usually keeps most professional sports organizations — like the NBA — treading lightly in response to China.

NPR correspondent Tom Goldman has been following the story and looks at how the WTA's unflinching support for Peng may inspire a wider outcry over China's actions.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Women's Tennis Stands Up To China

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One night a couple of weeks ago, world-class tennis champion Peng Shuai sat around a table full of food and wine at a restaurant in Beijing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Peng listens intently to her tennis coach, nodding and smiling. A couple of people are sitting beside her, seemingly friends. But this was not an ordinary video shared by Peng or her friends. The video was shared on Twitter by the editor of a Chinese state-run newspaper. It was part of a seemingly staged leak by the Chinese government to show Peng out and about for the first time in more than two weeks after the world began to ask, where is Peng Shuai?

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Growing concern about a tennis star who has not been seen or heard from after...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And we want to turn now to the deepening mystery of a Chinese tennis star who hasn't been seen since publicly accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

SHAPIRO: On November 2 on the platform Weibo, Peng had posted a detailed account of the alleged sexual assault.

XIAO QIANG: Peng Shuai posted about this actually rather long account of what's happened between her and Chinese former vice premier, standing committee member Zhang Gaoli.

SHAPIRO: That's Xiao Qiang. He's the Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times, a California-based publication that monitors media and censorship inside China. Minutes after Peng published her accusation, it was taken down by the Chinese government, as was any mention of her post.

QIANG: The world premier and the world tennis, the word Zhang Gaoli or even a movie star close to that name - everything disappeared.

SHAPIRO: Xiao says even for a government that's known for its strict censorship, this was swift and thorough.

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QIANG: That level of the censorship only happens when some explosive news - not only the content itself, but the public opinion around it was boiling, that it cannot be suppressed enough by simply just deleting the post.

SHAPIRO: Then, on the day she published her accusation, Peng suddenly vanished from the public eye. Xiao says other public figures have criticized the Chinese Communist Party and then disappeared, but Peng's case has attracted more attention.

QIANG: This is different. Peng Shuai is living in China. She is not only a sports star, a celebrity, but what - she actually accused the Chinese Communist Party official, Zhang Gaoli.

SHAPIRO: No one had ever directly and publicly accused a high-ranking Communist Party official in China of sexual assault.

QIANG: Never a victim could expose those people directly. So Peng Shuai in that sense is really, really brave.

SHAPIRO: A couple of weeks later, state-run media published videos and images of Peng, like the ones of her at that Beijing restaurant. But many don't believe that Peng is acting independently, including the Women's Tennis Association. They received emails allegedly from Peng Shuai saying she was safe.

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STEVE SIMON: Well, I would characterize them as orchestrated at this point in time.

SHAPIRO: That's Steve Simon, head of the WTA, speaking to CNN. And here's where the case takes another unusual turn. Last week, Simon announced the WTA would pull out of Chinese tournaments for the foreseeable future, potentially risking a billion dollars in revenue.

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SIMON: We're planning to suspend our events until such time that the Chinese authorities do the appropriate thing.

SHAPIRO: That move is unprecedented. China's hosting the Olympics in just a couple of months, and the U.S. was already under pressure to take a stand. The response to Peng's case just added to those calls. And today, the White House announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games, pointing to, quote, "the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region." China's government said earlier today that it would take resolute countermeasures against that move.

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SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - in the past, American businesses, including pro sports, have often stayed quiet about human rights violations to protect their profits. Now that calculus may be shifting.

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SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Monday, December 6. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. The Women's Tennis Association did something last week that's very unusual for American sports organizations. It stood up to the Chinese government.

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SIMON: When you get to sexual assault, it could not be compromised in any way, shape, or form. And in this situation, you have to separate the business side from the point of what's right and wrong, and we're going to side on the side of what's right and wrong.

SHAPIRO: WTA head Steve Simon said his organization is concerned for the safety of Peng Shuai, who has accused China's former vice premier of sexual assault. But pulling the WTA out of Chinese tournaments could cost the organization and its players around a billion dollars. A more typical reaction came from the leader of Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund. On CNBC last week, Ray Dalio appeared to be uncomfortable commenting publicly on the case of Peng Shuai.

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RAY DALIO: I can't be an expert in all of those particular dynamics of that. I really have no idea. So the guidance of the - you know, the government is, you know, the most important thing.

SHAPIRO: He compared China's leadership to parenting.

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DALIO: It's that - kind of like a strict parent. They behave like a strict parent. That is their approach.

SHAPIRO: Sports leagues tend to tread carefully with China. Several sports associations, like the NBA, have massive fan bases in China. And a big fan base means a lot of revenue. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: For sports leagues, there are vast sums of money to be made in China and lost if you end up on the wrong side of the government.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The financial fallout over the NBA just continues for a second day. Moments ago...

GOLDMAN: An NBA team executive's tweet in 2019 supporting Hong Kong protests against the government reportedly cost the league several hundred million dollars in Chinese business, which is why Steve Simon's message to China has been so notable. The Women's Tennis Association's CEO has demanded a guarantee of Peng Shuai's safety, or else the WTA pulls its business from China, a move that potentially could cost more than a billion dollars in revenue. Here's Simon on Tennis Channel live.

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SIMON: We are prepared to move on and deal with the challenges that will come with that. And they will be significant. But we are steadfast in that approach, and I don't see that changing.

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: I think it's commendable.

GOLDMAN: And rare, says longtime sports business expert Kenneth Shropshire, head of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. He can only think of one comparable situation.

SHROPSHIRE: Maybe the closest parallel was the NBA compelling the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, to sell after racist comments.

GOLDMAN: China hasn't been compelled to do anything in the Peng Shuai case other than state media releasing video and photos of her in which she appears safe and happy. Her supporters are dubious. Simon said he remains deeply concerned Peng isn't free from censorship and coercion. Still, Jerome Cohen, a veteran China expert, says the photos and videos do represent a shift.

JEROME COHEN: At first, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at its press conferences would say, we never heard of this.

GOLDMAN: But that position became impossible to maintain, Cohen says, after the outcry by the WTA and numerous star players. Cohen is a retired law professor who works part-time for the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on China and East Asia. He says the WTA has put China on its back foot, creating what he calls eye-opening possibilities.

COHEN: What if many of the other world's important organizations, starting with U.N. agencies - what if they got mobilized in order to solemnly protest China's human rights violations?

GOLDMAN: The U.S. government has labeled as genocide China's treatment of its Uyghur minority, which allegedly includes forced sterilizations, family separations, imprisonment. The Chinese government rejects allegations of abuses, saying Western critics want to defame China and undermine its development. Nury Turkel co-founded the Uyghur Human Rights Project in 2003. In recent years, he's had the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in his sights, advocating without much luck for the games not to take place.

NURY TURKEL: There is no interest in the business community to take on China. There's no outspoken athletes publicly condemning these behaviors.

GOLDMAN: Fellow Uyghur Rayhan Asat thinks that might change if she's able to tell her story about a close family torn apart in 2016, when her younger brother was imprisoned after a trip to the U.S. Asat, a human rights lawyer, wants Beijing-bound Olympians to hear from her and other Uyghurs.

RAYHAN ASAT: What I'm hoping to achieve is that after sharing our personal stories, they would find a way to protest, resist and not normalize a government having this Olympics that is designed to bring the world together.

GOLDMAN: Turkel says there's a glimmer of hope in the WTA's action supporting Peng Shuai.

TURKEL: Which should be the model.

GOLDMAN: The European Union followed the WTA's lead, saying it wants China to release verifiable proof that Peng is safe. But the International Olympic Committee has supported China's dubious actions in the Peng case, and critics hold little hope the IOC will take a WTA-like stance against the human rights record of its upcoming Olympic host country. Jerome Cohen says China can be forced by world opinion to make changes, but it's unlikely to happen in the next couple of months. And China sounds secure in that knowledge. Regarding diplomatic boycott of the games by the U.S., a state-run tabloid said, without these anti-China politicians from the West, the Beijing Winter Olympics would only be more exciting.

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SHAPIRO: That was NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

The case of Peng Shuai highlights questions about whether the private sector should be responsible for holding repressive governments like China accountable. Robert Daly directs the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, and he says most American companies don't want to do business with a repressive regime. But if they can't work in China...

ROBERT DALY: The difficulty is many of them will no longer be the leading companies in their industries around the world. That's the nature of the dilemma. But the companies that are there are actually instrumental to American global influence and power, which we lose if we pull out altogether.

SHAPIRO: He says whatever morals a corporation might have, confronting China is not just about a short-term risk for the business itself. It's also about the long game for the U.S.

DALY: We're in a long-term competition with China that is strategic and economic and its normative and ideological. And we need to bring our power to bear to do well in that competition. Part of that is the power of our corporations, yet we weaken them if they can't deal with China. If they do deal with China, they strengthen a regime that wants to spread its influence at our expense.

SHAPIRO: And Daly says if American companies do stand up to China, consumers in the U.S. might pay for it.

DALY: Lower-income Americans will have to pay more money to get basic necessities - things that they need. American pensioners who can't invest in China, if we go that route, will get less return on their savings. So the concerns are real, but the costs are also going to be high.

SHAPIRO: And while the U.S. is weighing those pros and cons, China has its own calculation to make. With the Olympics coming up, President Xi Jinping is desperate to project a positive image. Xiao Qiang, the editor-in-chief of the China Digital Times, says that could be a strategic opportunity for the U.S.

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QIANG: He does not want this Winter Olympics to be jeopardized. So here is a time there's a leverage, and the international community should use that leverage to push, first for Peng Shuai, but also for other humans' causes.

SHAPIRO: Even before the White House announced its plan for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese platform Weibo was already censoring the words U.S. Olympic boycott.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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