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Women's tennis tour suspends play in China over alleged censorship

CBS News logo CBS News 12/1/2021 Sophie Reardon
2020 Australian Open - Day 2 © / Getty Images 2020 Australian Open - Day 2

The Women's Tennis Association will not hold any matches in China, Steve Simon, WTA's chairman and CEO, said Wednesday. In the statement, Simon accused China of responding to Peng Shuai's accusations of sexual assault by a government official with "censorship, coercion and intimidation."

"When on November 2, 2021, Peng Shuai posted an allegation of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official, the Women's Tennis Association recognized that Peng Shuai's message had to be listened to and taken seriously," said Simon. "The players of the WTA, not to mention women around the world, deserve nothing less."

Simon wrote that her message was subsequently "removed from the internet" and the subject has been "censored in China." The association implored Chinese officials to stop the censorship, prove Peng is "free and able to speak" and conduct a legitimate investigation into her allegations.

"Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way," Simon said.

Peng Shuai of China in action during her Women's Singles first round match against Nao Hibino of Japan on day two of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2020, in Melbourne, Australia. / Credit: Getty Images © Provided by CBS News Peng Shuai of China in action during her Women's Singles first round match against Nao Hibino of Japan on day two of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2020, in Melbourne, Australia. / Credit: Getty Images

After she went public with her allegations last month, Peng seemed to disappear. U.S. and U.N. officials expressed concern over the tennis star's wellbeing. Then, several weeks later, Peng reappeared in a video and several photos posted by local Chinese outlets. However, questions arose from the WTA over whether the sightings were credible, according to the Associated Press. In his Wednesday statement, Simon reiterated the WTA's suspicions.

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"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," he said. "The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation — without censorship — into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation."

The suspension, which has "the full support of the WTA Board of Directors," includes Hong Kong and is effective immediately, Simon said.

"In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault," the statement said. "Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022."

In the statement, Simon said he regrets the association had to make this decision, but Chinese officials have "left the WTA with no other choice."

"I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue," he said.

Peng is a three-time Olympian and former Wimbledon champion.

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