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The Women's Tennis Association returns to China after boycotting

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Sixteen months ago, the Women's Tennis Association, the global professional body for female tennis players, made a dramatic announcement that it was boycotting holding events in China because Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player, had disappeared from public view. That was after she accused a senior Chinese Communist Party official of coercing her into having sex. Well, now the WTA is making a U-turn and returning to China. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In 2021, now-37-year-old Peng Shuai detailed in a long written online post of how she was allegedly coerced into sex a decade before by one of the country's most powerful Communist Party officials at the time - the country's vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, now 76. Instead of being investigated, her claims were covered up in China - her post deleted, her name briefly censored and efforts to reach her unsuccessful.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She did show up weeks later in a series of stilted videos like this one. Here, one of her coaches repeats the date in their playing strategy, while Peng nods along - the video appearing to show she was doing all right. The WTA was not convinced. And after various efforts to meet Peng failed, the organization, founded by Billie Jean King, announced it was pulling out of China, turning its back on a lucrative 10-year deal it signed with the country for more tournaments. And that's why the WTA's sudden decision to return starting this fall was so surprising.

MARK DREYER: It feels like they've undermined all the good work that they'd previously done.

FENG: That's Mark Dreyer, who writes about Chinese sports, including in his book "Sporting Superpower."

DREYER: You know, if you're China, your strategy was basically to ignore and deny and then just hold firm, and then you've come out with a complete win.

FENG: The WTA did not respond to NPR's request for comment or an interview. It said in a statement in English online that it backed out of China after it couldn't ensure Peng was safe, but now they felt they, quote, "will never fully secure those goals, and it will be our players and tournaments who ultimately will be paying an extraordinary price." Their Chinese-language press release made no mention of Peng Shuai at all. Dreyer also points out the WTA's voluntary China suspension occurred when most of China was under strict COVID controls and lockdowns, and now that China has finally lifted those restrictions...

DREYER: They've come back to China at the earliest opportunity that they were able to.

FENG: China's foreign ministry said it opposed the politicization of sports when asked about the WTA returning. Meanwhile, Peng Shuai has stayed silent.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.