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China critics hope the WTA will inspire outcry about alleged human rights violations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Earlier this month, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai disappeared and then reappeared after publicly accusing a Chinese government official of sexual assault. Throughout the saga, the Women's Tennis Association stood firmly behind Peng. The group's CEO praised her for speaking out and demanded proof of her safety. Now China critics have their eye on next February's Beijing Winter Olympics, where they hope others will follow the WTA's lead and condemn the country for human rights violations. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: For sports leagues, there are vast sums of money to be made in China and lost if you end up on the wrong side of the government.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The financial fallout over the NBA just continues for a second day.

GOLDMAN: An NBA team executive's tweet in 2019 supporting Hong Kong protests against the government reportedly cost the league several hundred million dollars in Chinese business, which is why Steve Simon's message to China has been so notable. The Women's Tennis Association CEO has demanded a guarantee of Peng Shuai safety, or else the WTA pulls its business from China, a move that potentially could cost more than a billion dollars in revenue. Here's Simon on Tennis Channel live.

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STEVE SIMON: We are prepared to move on and deal with the challenges that will come with that. And they will be significant. But we are steadfast in that approach, and I don't see that changing.

KENNETH SHROPSHIRE: I think it's commendable.

GOLDMAN: And rare, says longtime sports business expert Kenneth Shropshire, head of the Global Sport Institute at Arizona State University. He can only think of one comparable situation.

SHROPSHIRE: Maybe the closest parallel was the NBA compelling the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, to sell after racist comments.

GOLDMAN: China hasn't been compelled to do anything in the Peng Shuai case other than state media releasing video and photos of her in which she appears safe and happy. Her supporters are dubious. This past weekend Simon said he remains deeply concerned Peng isn't free from censorship and coercion. Still, Jerome Cohen, a veteran China expert, says the photos and videos do represent a shift.

JEROME COHEN: At first, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at its press conferences would say, we never heard of this.

GOLDMAN: But that position became impossible to maintain, Cohen says, after the outcry by the WTA and numerous star players. Cohen is a retired law professor who works part-time for the Council on Foreign Relations, focusing on China and East Asia. He says the WTA has put China on its back foot, creating what he calls eye-opening possibilities.

COHEN: What if many of the other world's important organizations, starting with U.N. agencies - what if they got mobilized in order to silently protest China's human rights violations?

GOLDMAN: The U.S. government has labeled as genocide China's treatment of its Uyghur minority, which allegedly includes forced sterilizations, family separations, imprisonment. The Chinese government rejects allegations of abuses, saying Western critics want to defame China and undermine its development. Nury Turkel co-founded the Uyghur Human Rights Project in 2003. In recent years, he's had the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics in his sights, advocating without much luck for the games not to take place.

NURY TURKEL: There is no interest in the business community to take on China. There's no outspoken athletes publicly condemning these behaviors.

GOLDMAN: Fellow Uyghur Rayhan Asat thinks that might change if she's able to tell her story about a close family torn apart in 2016, when her younger brother was imprisoned after a trip to the U.S. Asat, a human rights lawyer, wants Beijing-bound Olympians to hear from her and other Uyghurs.

RAYHAN ASAT: What I'm hoping to achieve is that after sharing our personal stories, they would find a way to protest, resist and not normalize a government having this Olympics that is designed to bring the world together.

GOLDMAN: Turkel says there's a glimmer of hope in the WTA's action supporting Peng Shuai.

TURKEL: Which should be the model.

GOLDMAN: Just today the European Union followed the WTA's lead, saying it wants China to release verifiable proof that Peng is safe. But the International Olympic Committee has supported China's dubious actions in the Peng case, and critics hold little hope the IOC will take a WTA-like stance against the human rights record of its upcoming Olympic host country. Jerome Cohen says China can be forced by world opinion to make changes, but it's unlikely to happen in the next couple of months. And China sounds secure in that knowledge. Regarding a proposed diplomatic boycott of the games by the U.S. and other countries, a state-run tabloid said, without these anti-China politicians from the West, the Beijing Winter Olympics would only be more exciting.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.