No Exception for “Princess of China”: China’s Silencing of Peng Shuai

Editor’s note: I am proud to share this excellent piece, on the global fallout and sport-governance implications of tennis star Peng Shuai’s accusations against China’s former Vice Premier, Zhang Gaoli. The author who wishes to remain anonymous. I can vouch 100% for the author’s expertise on the subject.–Tolga


*Habitually for Chinese names, the family name precedes the given name, and they are written as such in this article. For example, for Peng Shuai, Peng is the family name, and Shuai is the given name.

**ATP = Association of Tennis Players (men’s professional circuit); WTA = Women’s Tennis Association (women’s professional circuit); ITF = International Tennis Federation (international governing body of tennis, organizer of Grand Slams, Olympic/Regional Games tennis events, and low-tier professional events, and enforcer of anti-doping rules); IOC = International Olympic Committee.

Chapter I Peng Shuai and the Rise of China’s Women’s Tennis

On the world stage, Chinese tennis has always effectively been Chinese women’s tennis. Compared to the men from the world’s most populated country, none of whom has broken into the top 100 in ATP ranking, Chinese women have won, on top of numerous WTA tour-level trophies, 2 singles titles (Li Na, ’11 Roland Garros & ’14 Australian Open), 6 women’s doubles titles (Zheng Jie & Yan Zi, ’06 Australian Open & Wimbledon; Peng Shuai, ’13 Wimbledon & ’14 Roland Garros; Zhang Shuai, ’19 Australian Open & ’21 U.S. Open), and 1 Mixed Doubles title (Sun Tiantian, ’08 Australian Open) at Grand Slam events. The takeoff of Chinese women’s tennis, however, was not linear; rather, it was Peng Shuai’s – and Li Na’s – “trouble-making” in 2005 that led to the loosening of the state’s complete control over tennis players and expedited these women’s historic ascent.

When Sun Tiantian and Li Ting surprisingly won the women’s doubles gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games and when Li Na won a Chinese players’ first ever WTA tour-level singles title, both in 2004, the managerial approach that the Chinese Tennis Association and the Chinese National Team employed with elite tennis players was hardly different from how the weightlifters or the archers were managed. The country’s best players competed in the professional circuit but were hardly professionals: they had little freedom in tournament selection, had to skip Grand Slam and other events to compete in the National Games, were required to turn in all prize money, and could not choose their own coaching staff. In all fairness, it was a much freer system than its 1980s rendition, which was centered on Asian Games performances (tennis was not reinstated in the Olympic Games until 1988) and famously led to the defection of Hu Na in 1983 (which triggered a drastic cooldown of arguably the first honeymoon period of the U.S.-P.R.C. relations); but it was outdated, unincentivizing, and failing the country’s talents.

In 2005, both Peng and Li (unless specified, Li hereafter stands for Li Na) spoke out—quite vehemently—about the limitations of said sport management model on their professional pursuits. That year, all China’s elite women were forced to skip Wimbledon to play for their provincial teams at the National Games, but both Peng (representing Tianjin) and Li (representing Hubei) lost to Zheng Jie (representing Sichuan) in different events. They yearned to “fly solo”—that is, to have sufficient autonomy over their career paths and to become a real professional player. However, what they faced was a Soviet-style system that had been operating with few changes over decades, one that emphasized preparing to fight for national glory at the Olympic Games, and crushed any attempt to break free (Yao Ming’s joining the Houston Rockets in 2002 both was and was not an exception). The clash between Peng (and Li) and the state sport officials led to a loaded quote from Sun Jinfang, then Director of the Tennis Management Center of General Administration of Sport of China and former captain of China’s Asian Games volleyball champion team: Does she (Peng) think she is (Maria) Sharapova?… I will let her fly solo as soon as she signs a pledge to win the gold medal (at the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games)! At the same time, like many other rising young talents, Peng did not have the mightiest mental power on court, as demonstrated by many upsets and comebacks against her, which along with Sun’s criticism and untimely injuries, tanked her 2006 season.

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