SHANGHAI: The editor of China's Global Times newspaper accused the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) of "coercing" star player Peng Shuai to "support the West's attack" on China by suspending tournaments in the country until it was assured of her well-being.
Known for his combative tweets, Hu Xijin has been outspoken on the scandal involving Peng and her accusation of sexual assault by a former Chinese vice premier even as Beijing has been largely silent and authorities have blocked discussions of the topic on China's internet.
The WTA on Wednesday (Dec 1) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, citing concerns about the well-being of Peng, a former doubles world number one, and the safety of other players.
"WTA is coercing Peng Shuai to support the West's attack on the Chinese system. They are depriving Peng Shuai's freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation," Hu said on his official Twitter account in a post which cited the WTA's announcement.
The WTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Hu's post on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid, is published by the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily.
Peng's whereabouts became a matter of international concern following a nearly three-week public absence after she posted a message on social media in early November, alleging that China's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her.
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the Chinese government has 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. Aside from seeking assurances of Peng's well-being, the WTA has called for a "full and transparent investigation" into her accusations against Zhang.
Hu, a prominent state media journalist, has used Twitter to actively comment on the scandal, and was among the first to publish images and videos of her appearances, serving as de facto messenger to the world outside. Twitter is blocked in China.
He has said that these appearances by Peng should have been enough to relieve or eliminate most concerns for the player, but that people were "aiming to attack China's system and boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics".
China's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment and calls to the organisers of the China Open tournament went unanswered.
The ministry said late last month that "certain people" should stop the "malicious hyping" and "politicisation" of the Peng issue.
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.
The US-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.