Women’s Tennis Association Sets Precedent in Pressuring China Over Rights Issues

By Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Michael Washburn
Freelance Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based freelance reporter who covers China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
December 6, 2021 Updated: December 8, 2021

News Analysis

The Women’s Tennis Association’s (WTA) announcement last week of its decision not to hold tournaments in China next year in response to Beijing’s silencing of tennis star Peng Shuai, who has made allegations of sexual assault against former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, is the latest sign of heightened awareness worldwide of the communist regime’s abuses.

Grand Slam doubles and Olympic champion Peng has mostly been out of the public spotlight following her explosive charges against the former senior Chinese official, which are of a particularly sensitive nature in the age of #MeToo. A raft of governmental bodies worldwide has demanded proof of Peng’s well-being, while the WTA in its announcement took strong exception to her disappearance from public life.

“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,” Steve Simon, the WTA’s CEO, said in a Dec. 1 statement.

The organization stands to lose more than $1 billion in revenues from tournaments in the vast Chinese market, and its decision is a strong statement that ethical principles must come before profits.

The WTA’s decision may have a real impact on Beijing’s conduct, observers said following the announcement. Moreover, it may point the way forward with regard to the complicated question of doing business in a country whose authoritarian regime chronically violates human rights, freedom of speech, and international treaty obligations.

The WTA has set an example of the type of ban that may actually work. It is not just another corporation in need of cheap labor. Tennis matches are not factories producing garments or shoes, and giving a livelihood to thousands of poor Chinese. A targeted ban of this nature, implemented by a high-profile organization, may prove both more politically effective and economically and socially feasible than a blanket withdrawal by corporations of every size and profile, experts said.

Growing Awareness

The WTA is the only major sports organization to implement such a ban in response to human rights concerns in China. Its move stands in stark contrast to many global corporations that have stayed silent on Beijing’s abuses or bowed to the regime’s expanding censorship demands.

Many multinationals appear intimidated by developments such as Beijing’s retaliation earlier this year against clothing retailers such as Nike, H&M, and Adidas for having the temerity to raise concerns over the forced labor of Uyghur workers in the cotton-growing regions of Xinjiang, not to mention the terrible penalties resulting in 2019 from a tweet sent out by then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey praising pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. The tweet cost the National Basketball Association partnerships in China’s enormous sports market.

Yet the WTA’s ban does come on the heels of other pointed public statements by high-profile players and organizations in the global sports industry, such as by Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter who in recent months has taken to Twitter to call out the communist regime on its rights violations, including its suppression in Hong Kong, Tibet, and its murder of prisoners of conscience for their organs.

Amid these developments, some may wonder whether other businesses and franchises should ramp up the pressure by emulating the WTA’s move. Experts who have followed China and global corporations’ engagement with the country say that the WTA’s move may well have an impact on Beijing given the WTA’s high profile and millions of fans, but the answer to the second question is not a simple yes or no.

Rather, corporations must make decisions on a case-by-case basis and determine what is the appropriate step given the nature of their relationship with the Chinese market and with labor in China, and the likely consequences at all levels—diplomatic, political, commercial, and social.

Feasibility

Global corporations that have plants in China and sell to the vast market there are not necessarily abetting human rights abuses and it is not self-evident that their withdrawal would help the struggling millions in China. There is a role for constructive engagement, some experts say.

“If foreign corporations were to stay out of all countries that disrespect human rights, including underpaying the ill-treating their workers, global trade would essentially grind to a halt,” said Jane Golley, Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University.

In the case of China, in particular, there would be costs for large numbers of poor laborers who are already suffering at the hands of the CCP.

“Refusing to engage with China at all would inflict large costs on the (unknown) portion of the Uyghur and other Chinese workers who have voluntarily chosen to work in factories that supply our goods, because that is the best option to provide for their families,” Golley said.

“Certainly, every company—and all consumers, too—should be encouraged to make ethical decisions, and should also be held to account when they do not. But this requires constructive engagement and truth-seeking, not walking away altogether,” she continued.

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Information Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, also said that walking away altogether would be a mistake. To the extent that U.S. businesses can sell to China, that is of benefit to the United States, he said.

“The idea that we should cut off sales to China because of human rights concerns is misguided,” Atkinson said. “There is no reason to expect that action to have any effect on Chinese human rights practices, and, second, unless other nations also take actions, the result will simply be to shift sales from U.S. companies to other nations’ companies.”

Leverage

Justine Nolan, a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and director of the Australian Human Rights Institute, emphasized the need to proceed on a case-by-case basis.

In the case of the province of Xinjiang, the widespread use of forced labor to turn out products such as solar panels and cotton is of particular concern given the regime’s lack of disclosure about labor practices there and outside observers’ lack of access to the region.

In Xinjiang, Nolan said, constructive engagement may have a limited impact overall. Hence, in that particular case, there is an argument for a corporation to withdraw from the region and take its business elsewhere, she said. But that is not a universal solution.

“Generally, this should be a last resort because the aim is to change practices in a way that improves the lives of workers, and more commonly this can be done by supporting longer-term relationships with suppliers that are premised on and support workplace change,” Nolan said.

It does not minimize the severity of the human rights situation in China to say that constructive engagement with Chinese entities has born fruit for some companies that have been smart about balancing the profit imperative with concern for human rights and working conditions.

“Kathmandu has been trying to do this while also consolidating its supply chain. Outland Denim is a different model, where they are smaller abut have pursued a factory ownership model to control production conditions but are also now looking more seriously at their supply chain back to the source,” Nolan observed, referring to two Australian-based clothing companies.

The WTA Ban

The upshot of experts’ analysis is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the question of doing business in China, but there is room for a bifurcated strategy depending on the nature and profile of a given business or franchise. For her part, Nolan sees potential for certain types of companies uniting with others on the issue and acting in concert.

“Where some companies are being singled out—like the Celtics, or, as has happened previously, some apparel companies operating in China—the ideal would be to find support by the industry/sector as a whole taking a clear stance that supports human rights, not as an optional extra, but as part of the business-as-usual approach. There is some safety in numbers,” Nolan said.

But in the case of a franchise as prominent and respected as the WTA, implementing a ban on events in China, even if harmful to profits, might really prove effective as a means of letting Beijing know that its chronic abuses are not without consequences. It could help convince the CCP that the stakes are just too high to continue its more egregious behavior.

“Powerful, wealthy corporations may have more options than individuals. The recent decision by the WTA to ban China tournaments in the wake of Peng Shuai’s allegation against Zhang Gaoli is a case in point,” said Golley. “Surely this has got to hurt the Chinese government, as well as those Chinese fans of Peng and the game. And it’s not obvious, to me, how they can retaliate.”

Golley expressed hope that the WTA’s action might result in an improvement in human rights in China in the long term, along with hope that it does not have the unfortunate side effect of exacerbating Peng’s current predicament.

In the view of Atkinson of the ITIF, it is important for organizations like the NBA to show moral courage and make it clear that the NBA will not retaliate against NBA members, like Enes Kanter, who speak their minds on China. “At the same time, the U.S. government also needs to make it clear that it will also support organizations that don’t kowtow to the Chinese government,” he said.

Michael Washburn
Freelance Reporter
Michael Washburn is a New York-based freelance reporter who covers China-related topics. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”