WASHINGTON -- WTA Tour chairman Steve Simon said Wednesday the women's tennis circuit is suspending all tournaments in China over concerns about the safety of Chinese player Peng Shuai.
The WTA had planned 11 events in China this year before Covid-19 forced them to be relocated or cancelled.
Resumption of competition there is now on hold.
"I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong," Simon said.
Simon remains concerned about Peng following her accusations of sexual assault against a powerful politician.
"In good conscience, 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," Simon said.
"Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022."
Peng, a 35-year-old Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, was not seen for more than two weeks following her allegations that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, now in his 70s, forced her into sex during a years-long on-and-off relationship.
Peng's claims against Zhang were the first time China's #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the ruling Communist Party.
Peng was photographed at a tennis event last month in Beijing and participated in a video call on November 21 with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. Beijing is set to host the Winter Olympics in February.
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation," Simon said.
"The WTA has been clear on what is needed here and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation -– without censorship –- into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation.
"None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded –- equality for women –- would suffer an immense setback.
"I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players."
The loss of events in China would be a blow to the WTA, but Simon said, "China's leaders have left the WTA with no choice."
"I very much regret it has come to this point," Simon said. "However, unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China.
"I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue."
- 'Urgent' to speak out -
The European Union, the United Nations, the United States and Britain have all called for proof of Peng's whereabouts and well-being.
"I have been gratified by the massive amount of international support the WTA has received for its position on this matter," Simon said.
"To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out."
"I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications."
Billie Jean King, a 12-time Grand Slam singles champion who helped found the WTA in 1973, praised the move.
"I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world," King tweeted.
"The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players. This is another reason why women's tennis is the leader in women's sports."
Peng's social media message alleging the sexual assault has been removed from the internet and the issue has been censored in China.
"Chinese officials have been provided the opportunity to cease this censorship, verifiably prove that Peng is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair, and transparent manner," Simon said.
"Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way."
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) said they "understand the decision" of the WTA.
"The WTA has stood firm and true to its values from the start and we understand their decision. We will continue to closely monitor the situation," the ITF said in a statement to AFP.
© Agence France-Presse