SHANGHAI (Reuters) -China declared opposition to "politicisation of sports" on Thursday, after the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) suspended tournaments in the country following star player Peng Shuai's accusations of sexual assault against a former vice premier.
Unconvinced by Peng's public appearances since the scandal first broke a month ago, the WTA said it wants assurances of Peng's well-being and has called for an investigation into the accusations levelled by the former world number one doubles player against former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli.
It also cited concerns over the safety of other players.
The stance taken by the WTA comes at a sensitive time for China, as Beijing is preparing to host the Winter Olympics next February, and global rights groups and others have called for a boycott in protest against China's human rights record.
When asked about the matter at a regular briefing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly comment on the WTA's move but said China "opposes the politicisation of sports."
The International Olympic Committee said in a statement on Thursday that it had held a second video call with Peng, having held the first late last month.
"We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the wellbeing and safety of Peng Shuai. This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her," the IOC said.
Beijing has remained largely silent over the scandal and authorities have blocked discussions of the topic on China's heavily-censored internet.
Instead, the Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic English-language tabloid, published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily, took aim at the WTA in an editorial on Thursday, accusing it of "bringing politics into women's tennis" and of being a "lever of Western public opinion".
The editorial, posted on the newspaper's account on Twitter account - which is not available in China - called the WTA "betrayers of the Olympic spirit" and said that "some forces in the West are instigating a boycott against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics."
The U.S.-headquartered tour's decision to walk away from one of its biggest markets was applauded by many leading figures in the tennis world but could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and sponsorship revenue.
ATTACKING THE BEIJING OLYMPICS
Peng's whereabouts became a matter of international concern following a nearly three-week public absence after she publically accused Zhang in a social media message posted in early November.
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the Chinese government have commented on Peng's allegation.
Peng did appear in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children's tennis tournament in Beijing, photographs and videos published by Chinese state media and by the tournament's organisers showed.
On Nov. 21, IOC President Thomas Bach had a 30-minute video call with Peng, who competed at three Olympics, during which she told him she was safe.
But WTA chief executive Steve Simon, who said the decision to suspend tournaments in China had the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, said they were not convinced all was well with Peng.
The Global Times' editor-in-chief Hu Xijin used his personal Twitter account on Thursday to accuse the WTA of "coercing" Peng to "support the West's attack" on China.
Serving as de facto messengers to the outside world, Hu and other Global Times reporters were among the first to publish images and videos of Peng's appearances earlier this month.
The Global Times also cited a statement from the Chinese Tennis Association https://www.facebook.com/globaltimesnews/posts/4721717597909103 saying that it would defend its rights, and warning that the WTA should bear the legal consequences. The CTA did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment.
Calls to the organisers of the China Open tournament went unanswered.
Searches on the topic of the WTA's suspension yielded no results on China's Twitter-like Weibo on Thursday, and at least one post seen by Reuters that criticised the WTA's move was later deleted.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh; Additional reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai, Gabriel Crossley in Beijing and Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)