“None of this is acceptable, nor can it become,” said Steve Simon, CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), in a statement announcing the suspension of its tournaments in China earlier this month.
The move was taken in response to the Chinese government’s treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai, who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a senior retired Chinese government official in an article published on November 2 on social networks. Her post on Weibo was censored, and she was not seen in public for weeks afterward. Her subsequent appearances in videos and photos are widely believed to have been staged by authorities. Peng had two video calls with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which was accused of staging a “publicity stunt” ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, when he said in statements afterwards that Peng was “safe and sound”.
The WTA’s strong position in granting rights to profits is striking. For too long, too many people in business have gone to extremes to avoid criticizing Beijing’s human rights record for fear that the authorities or their proxies will rampage and deny companies access. to the lucrative Chinese market. The question is: will the brave act of the WTA be a turning point for the world of international sport and for commercial engagement with China?
Even after the WTA’s decision to boycott China, reactions have not been uniformly principled. ATP, the governing body of professional men’s tennis, issued a statement saying that “the situation involving Peng Shuai continues to raise serious concerns.” ATP added, however, that “having a global presence gives us the best chance to create opportunities and make an impact.” The statement was taken as a signal that ATP did not intend to follow the WTA’s lead and suspend its operations in China.
The IOC, meanwhile, said its “quiet diplomacy” is “the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian issues.”
The radically different approaches of the WTA and the IOC drew a reaction from tennis legend Martina Navratilova. She tweeted: “It’s a courageous position from Steve Simon and the WTA where we put the principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and especially for Peng Shuai. Now what do you say, @IOC?!? #IOC – so far I can barely hear you !!! “
Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin, who in 2016 was forced to appear on Chinese state television to praise the police who tortured him, called the IOC’s behavior “amazing”.
The WTA’s determination is quickly becoming the benchmark by which other organizations are judged, accelerating a shift in the way the world engages with China.
Implied in the ATP and IOC statements is the long-held misconception that staying in the Chinese market by remaining silent about human rights violations will lead Beijing to more openness. But fewer people are buying the idea now and it is getting harder and harder for companies to use this justification for their silence on human rights.
It is also increasingly difficult for large multinational companies to claim to defend human rights at home or abroad, while bowing down to Beijing. Some iconic brands that claim to defend the right to privacy and social justice are accused of hypocrisy. The IOC’s mantra that the Olympic Games are “a force for good” sounds increasingly subtle.
The call for a diplomatic – if not total – boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is increasingly heard. First, there has been an international outcry over the abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong; now there is Peng’s situation. Countries like the UK, US, New Zealand and Lithuania have announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Olympics, keeping their government delegations, but not the athletes, at home.
Legislatures in different countries are also stepping up the pressure. In July, U.S. lawmakers blasted Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Intel, Visa and Procter & Gamble in a congressional hearing for sponsoring the Beijing Winter Olympics. Company representatives squirmed, doing all they could to to avoid say anything that could upset the Chinese authorities while robotically repeating their alleged commitment to human rights. Additionally, Human Rights Watch wrote to these companies in May 2021 asking how they were using their influence as sponsors of the Olympics to address human rights issues. None offered a substantial response.
In May, the European Parliament suspended a major trade and investment deal with China that had been in the works for seven years. It came after Beijing responded with its own sanctions when the European Union imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials involved in Xinjiang politics. The US Congress has sought to move beyond the Biden administration’s sectoral restrictions on certain products from Xinjiang. The House of Representatives this week backed the Uyghur law on the prevention of forced labor, although it must now be passed by the Senate to become law. This creates a “rebuttable presumption”, assuming that products made in Xinjiang are made with forced labor and shifts the burden of proof to importers who would have to prove to customs officials that their products were not made with carbon. forced labor.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government continues to squeeze international companies, making their position in China increasingly precarious. In March, authorities encouraged consumers across China to boycott foreign companies that had publicly expressed concerns about forced labor and other human rights violations in Xinjiang. This has led several companies to remove the anti-forced labor statements from their websites. Others have pledged to continue using Xinjiang cotton, even as companies that provide labor audits and inspection services have withdrawn from Xinjiang, recognizing that it is difficult to detect forced labor in the region. heavily guarded region.
The silence and complicity of the international sports and business community in Beijing’s horrific rights violations seem increasingly untenable. The WTA has shown a way out. Instead of being pushed this way and pulled the other way, companies should take a page out of the WTA manual and stand up for human rights. This is the only way to achieve a sustainable environment conducive to ethical business and sport.