Peng Shuai Case Highlights the Complexities of Sport’s Geopolitical Economy

26 novembre 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

The recent case of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai highlights how rapidly the worlds of sport, business and politics are converging. Indeed, this is so fast that many, including teams, governments and brands are struggling to keep pace with the increasingly complex environments in which they operate.

With Peng, what appeared to start as another manifestation of China’s sometimes toxic patriarchy, very quickly escalated in a much bigger incident. As leading tennis players called out their fellow player’s apparent silencing and assumed incarceration, the Women’s Tennis Association condemned the Chinese authorities’ actions and threatened to pull out of China.

Only later was it reported that, after being drawn to China by the promise of ‘big bucks’, the WTA had already started to retrench from this market because the initially anticipated riches haven’t materialised. This didn’t stop the WTA from signing multi-million dollar deals with the likes of China’s iQIYI, a digital platform that has been accused of being complicit with Chinese government in the suppression of free speech and communities such as LGBTQ+. Some have even accused iQIYI of assisting the Chinese government in its silencing of ‘Me Too’.

As reporting of Peng’s escalated to a frenzy, first the United Nations and then later the International Olympic Committee intervened. Indeed, IOC president Thomas Bach felt compelled to meet the tennis player to help allay fears about her. Some immediately criticised Bach for legitimising China’s actions, though the German was presumably mindful of the ultimate, apocalyptic scenario: a large-scale boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

With brands such as Adidas, Peng’s apparel provider, remaining silent throughout it slowly became apparent that Zhang Gaoli (whom the tennis player was accusing of sexual coercion) has been a long-time and bitter rival of China’s president Xi Jinping. In Xi’s pursuit of absolute power, one thing his officials have been targeting is male politicians who abuse their positions in public office. Although Peng’s apparent plight may be seen as vindication of China’s growing ‘Me Too’ movement, it nevertheless seems that Peng could actually part of more profound politicking within government in Beijing.

All of this embodies what 21st century sport has now become and highlights the complex challenges which those involved in sport now face. This is largely the consequence of several giga-changes which are currently omnipotent and affecting all aspects of life. Firstly, the global and globally interconnected nature of the Peng episode is clearly evident. What perhaps started as a Chinese domestic matter quickly became a much bigger and more widely significant global incident.

This drew in all manner of people and organisations including: a sport governing body based in Republican voting Florida (the WTA); Naomi Osaka, a Japanese-Haitian tennis player who criticised China’s actions; and the world’s largest sport mega-event, the Olympic Games (based in Switzerland). What the Peng case has also nevertheless served to highlight is the interconnected nature of contemporary sport and, indeed, life in general. Some observers have referred to this as a conflation of sport, business and politics, although this is an oversimplification of the challenges that sport now faces.

Secondly, the digitalisation of the world enabled Peng Shuai to initially bring her case to the world’s attention, albeit with her social media posts about Zhang later being removed from Chinese platforms. Still, those initial posts were enough to provoke a global outcry centred on the ‘Me Too’ movement, though extending way beyond this to include even an online call with IOC president Bach. Without these technologies, one suspects the world either may not have engaged with the issue or else would have consumed it in ways redolent of the twentieth century’s Cold War years.

The combined effects of these giga-changes – globalisation and digitalisation – are having a profound effect on sport. A pivot in economic and political power towards Asia means that the United States and Europe no longer exclusively represent the political and industrial heartland of sport. As the balance of power has shifted, so the nature of control has too. Hence, for example, the likes of Western companies and brands who sponsor sport find themselves caught between Whitehouse hawks in Washington DC and the growing ultra-nationalism of some in Chinese government.

Yet this is not simply a political matter, it is also an economic, commercial and financial one too. As the global economy has grown and become more interconnected, so Western companies have sought to expand into new markets. However, this now leaves them juxtaposed, presenting one proposition to Western audiences and another to audiences in places like China. Take a look at the web sites or annual reports for Western businesses associated with Peng and others involved in Chinese sport. Many accentuate their support for gender equality, even though in China there is currently a crackdown on ‘Me Too’ advocates. Many are in an invidious position and increasingly faced with pressures to call for one side or the other.

These are complex, complicated times for sport and, indeed, Peng Shuai herself. Whatever the precise nature of her case, she has become caught-up (perhaps even used) in something much bigger. This makes the leap from the government offices of Tiananmen Square to Saint Petersburg Florida (where the WTA is based) an especially striking one. Not only does such a leap embody contemporary sport’s increasingly binary ideological debate, it also highlights the geography that are also at play. For instance, ‘Me Too’ is the essence of human geography, the way in which people self-identify and engage with others, and the values and norms that societies seek to uphold.

If Peng Shuai’s claims are true, then it should bring shame and punishment to all of those who perpetrated or enabled the coercion against her. The problem is, we may never know the facts, especially given the typically opaque nature of Chinese governance and government. Yet this not just China’s issue, it is one for everyone and everything across the world who has chosen to engage with the country during these geopolitically charged times.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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