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#WhereIsPengShuai: China’s Star Tennis Player Went Missing

Peng re-appeared after two weeks, but her disappearance sparked a global outcry against human rights violations under the Chinese Communist Party

On November 2, two-time tennis doubles champion, singles semifinalist, and three-time Olympian Peng Shuai posted on her Weibo account an essay accusing the former vice premier of China, Zhang Gaoli, of rape and coercion. They had an on-and-off relationship that began ten years ago and, reportedly, had a fight several days before her post. (A partial translation of her post can be found here.)

In 2014 Peng was the number one tennis doubles champion, having won two Grand Slams, and has toured with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). She has also appeared in three Olympics for China. Zhang is a retired vice premier of the highest governing body in China, the Politburo Standing Committee, and unlike other government officials who have been ousted for sexual misconduct, Zhang is a member in good standing. During Zhang’s tenure as vice premier, he was the head of the government’s working group for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Censors took down Peng’s essay within thirty minutes of her posting it. Her Weibo account remained in place but was unsearchable, and her bio was changed to remove one of the lines from the essay. According to China Digital Times, Weibo used “nearly all the tools in its censorship toolkit to suppress discussion of Peng’s post.”

Peng had not been seen publicly for two weeks after she posted the essay, prompting an international outcry and social media campaign: #WhereIsPengShuai. The campaign was started by feminists in China who have been emboldened by the #MeToo movement to call out China’s patriarchal society.

On November 20 and 21, Peng was seen again at the China Open, a state-backed tennis competition in Beijing, and then had a closed-door video call with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. She was also seen in several photos posted online on Twitter and Weibo, and state-backed media Tweeted a screenshot of an email from Peng to Steve Simon, president of the WTA.

The WTA Stands Up to China while the IOC Caves

Before the video call on November 20, Simon voiced concern over Peng’s situation and threatened to pull the women’s tennis tour out of China if the government did not provide proof of where she was and that she was safe. Furthermore, he called on the Chinese authorities to launch an investigation into the sexual assault charges. He told CNN that “this is bigger than the business… Women need to be respected and not censored.”

The Wall Street Journal says Simon is the “rare sports executive willing to quit one of the most lucrative foreign markets on the planet.” This contrasts with the NBA, some of its players, and some sports networks, that have pandered to the Chinese government’s preferred narratives.

Tennis greats Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Andy Murray, Billie Jean King, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer called for proof that Peng was okay. Along with the WTA, the men’s tennis tour has also called for an investigation into the allegations. The United Nations and the Biden Administration called for independent, verifiable proof of her whereabouts, evidence that she was safe, and an investigation into the charges. Several people have cited this as another reason for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2022.

Steve Simon is not convinced that Peng is acting on her own volition in the recent video chat with the IOC president. He told The Wall Street Journal,

“While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” Mr. Simon said, adding that he remained “concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug.”

Fan Wenxin and Joshua Robinson, “Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai Appears in Beijing Amid Assault Claim” at The Wall Street Journal

Simon believes the email from Peng was either not written by Peng or that she was coerced into writing it. China Digital Times reports that the email was “bizarre for a number of reasons” including that it looked like a document still in progress and was not posted in any social media platforms accessible within China.

Note: BBC is canceled in China because it reported on Uyghurs

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Tennis Federation, on the other hand, have continued to take a more “hands-off” approach to the Chinese Communist Party. CNN asked the IOC why it has not spoken up about Peng. The IOC responded, “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.” 

On November 21, Peng had a video call with IOC president Thomas Bach and IOC Athletes Commission chair Emma Terho. A Chinese sports official was also on the call with Peng. Bach said Peng seems to be doing fine, was relaxed, and would like her privacy respected. His response was met with criticism from Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch: 

The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes.

Human Rights Watch, “Olympics: Don’t Promote Chinese State Propaganda

Human Rights Watch has previously called out the IOC for not assessing the human rights situation in China before deciding to host the Olympic games there, and said that by cooperating with the Chinese government in the video call with Peng, 

…the IOC failed to adhere to its own human rights commitments and to protect the free expression rights of Olympic athletes… The IOC’s conduct also undermined the efforts by the WTA and other international sports organizations and individuals to secure Peng’s safety and freedom, and hold the Chinese government to account for human rights violations.

Human Rights Watch, “Olympics: Don’t Promote Chinese State Propaganda

The Economist points to the financial incentives for the Women’s Tennis Association and the IOC’s positions and that the Chinese government uses economic leverage to get its way:

With the Winter Olympics opening in Beijing in February, the IOC and corporate sponsors have multi-billion-dollar reasons to help China make the Peng Shuai story go away. Therein lies a bleak lesson. The WTA has been brave in challenging China, given that it has organised lucrative tournaments there. But as a women’s sports association, it depends on retaining the confidence of women players. Sometimes there are incentives larger than China’s market.

Chaguan, “What Peng Shuai reveals about one-party rule” at The Economist

The CCP’s modus operandi: Weibo, Censorship, and Disappearing People

Other high-profile figures who have disappeared for a time include actress Zhao Wei and e-commerce tech entrepreneur Jack Ma, both high-power billionaires. About this time last year, Alibaba and Ant Group Financial founder, Jack Ma disappeared from the public. He later appeared playing golf and living like a pensioner rather than his typical high-profile public life. In October Zhao Wei, Chinese actress, director, and business-owner, whose popularity has been compared to Reese Witherspoon in the U.S., disappeared from the public. All instances of her name on the internet and in movie and television credits were removed. She later appeared with her husband in France.

Peng Shuai’s disappearance, followed by a guarded reappearance, follows the same pattern as other disappearance/reappearances in China:

It is a tactic that the Chinese government often turns to when handling people it views as a threat, said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. Once the international community starts questioning someone’s whereabouts or safety, China will release “some orchestrated, staged video that says, ‘Look, they’re fine,’” she said.

Eva Xiao, “China’s Response to Peng Shuai Allegations Follows Familiar Pattern” at The Wall Street Journal

China Digital Times highlighted comments by Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, on Twitter responding to the email supposedly written by Peng to Steve Simon and Tweeted to English-speaking audiences from China’s state-backed CGTN:

A lot has been made about the inability of Chinese propaganda organs to adapt to foreign audiences, how they hit the wrong tone, etc. That’s partially true, but there’s more at play here because this tweet would also not convince a single Chinese person that Peng Shuai is fine 2/

Rather, messages like these are meant as a demonstration of power: “We are telling you that she is fine, and who are you to say otherwise?” It’s not meant to convince people but to intimidate and demonstrate the power of the state 3/

This demonstration of power, for the largest part, works better in China than internationally because the threat of consequences is much higher to people in China than to people outside of China 4/

Mareike Ohlberg’s Twitter thread, November 17, 2021

While this is par-for-the-course for the CCP, some commentators believe the timing of Peng’s accusation was to bring down political figures, and what the CCP did not anticipate was the global outcry or that the WTA was going to stand firm.

Whether or not there were political machinations behind Peng’s Weibo post, the global outcry has put China’s propaganda department in a difficult position. The Economist says Peng’s case is revealing because it shows how the CCP’s normal response to such matters doesn’t work in a marketplace of ideas in which the Party does not control the narrative:

The strain showed on November 20th when a commentator for CGTN accused foreigners of racism for demanding evidence of Ms Peng’s safety. “Funny how some in the West feel people in China should be at their beck and call. Just another form of white male entitlement and privilege?” the commentator tweeted—a charge that might puzzle supporters like Ms Williams and Ms Osaka.” 

Chaguan, “What Peng Shuai reveals about one-party rule” at The Economist

In a larger context, Peng’s case is another example of the Chinese Communist Party encountering a global community that is increasingly unwilling to tolerate its human rights abuses.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

#WhereIsPengShuai: China’s Star Tennis Player Went Missing