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Where is Peng Shuai? The Ongoing Silence of Chinese Tennis Star

It has been more than one month since Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of “forcing her to have sexual relations with him“. It has also been more than one month since she was last seen freely in public.

Peng’s allegations are historic for several reasons: it is the first time such a claim has been levied against one of China’s senior political leaders, but also a massive development in China’s #MeToo movement, still in its relative infancy due to state censorship. Her accusations come just two weeks after another of China’s landmark sexual assault cases, ongoing for three long years, was thrown out by Chinese courts in mid-September.

Peng’s short essay documenting her abuse was available to read on her personal Weibo account (China’s equivalent of Twitter) for just thirty-four minutes before it was scrubbed clean not only from the site but the entirety of the Chinese internet. In it, she wrote “I know that someone of your eminence, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, you’ll say that you’re not afraid… but even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self destruction, I will tell the truth about you.”

Zhang first coerced her during a visit to his home to play tennis, she wrote “that afternoon I didn’t give my consent and couldn’t stop crying… you brought me to your house and forced me and you to have relations”. On their own, her declarations are heartbreaking. Combined with her disappearance, her subsequent erasure and China’s feeble yet relentless attempts to hush international fury, they are terrifying.

The days following her allegations saw a quick escalation of concerns regarding her whereabouts from politicians, athletes, fans and organisation leaders. On November 17th, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) CEO Steve Simon received an email allegedly from Peng; China had finally decided to respond.

For believability’s sake, on the same day the Chinese media outlet CGTN posted a screenshot of the email to their Twitter account, captioned “Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has sent an email to Steve Simon, the WTA Chairman & CEO, CGTN has learned”. Amongst the repetitive (and entirely unsurprising) denials “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe”, “I’ve just been resting at home”, “everything is fine”, are two more concerning remarks.

The first is the total withdrawal of her sexual assault allegations: “The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true”. Given the length of Peng’s original accusations, the detail she went into, the pain she conveyed and, above all, the bravery she displayed in speaking out against one of the most powerful men in China knowing that it might be hopeless, certainly dangerous, suggests unequivocally in my eyes, and in the eyes of most of the world, that her allegations of sexual assault are absolutely true.

The second concerning remark is the eerily threatening antepenultimate sentence which reads “I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future”. Hope? Chance? If? Immediately the question is begged: why would Peng not have the chance to promote Chinese tennis in the future? What might happen between then and now? And what can we do to stop it? Shortly after the email was released to the public, Simon rightly put out a statement of doubt, saying that it “only raises [his] concerns as to her safety and whereabouts”.

It wasn’t until November 19th, seventeen days after her initial post on Weibo, that the first photo ‘evidence’ emerged on the accounts of China state-affiliated media executives of Peng at home, apparently well, apparently happy. This was China’s second response to ongoing international concern for the safety and whereabouts of the tennis star.

The following day Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s Global Times, posted two videos of Peng “having dinner with her coach and friends in a restaurant”. Obviously, “the video content clearly shows they are shot on Saturday. Beijing time“.

Staged beyond belief, this caption is supported only by dialogue between Peng and her coach. Sat opposite her, he asks what date it is, and then asks again. “Saturday 20th November” is mentioned an unsettling five times throughout the brief clip released. Perhaps China doth protest too much.

Then, once more for good measure, Hu posted two new videos the following day of Peng again in public, this time at a teenager tennis match, surrounded by male officiates, hands tightly clasped between unenthusiastic claps. The caption for one of the videos reads “can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure? Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside”. How dark indeed.

These weak attempts by Chinese media to silence growing pressure from governments, celebrities and sports associations all share a profound insincerity that only the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seems to be buying. While Steve Simon and the WTA have, since November 14th, taken a firm and outspoken stance against China’s silencing and censoring of Peng, the IOC have often refrained from comment, choosing instead “quiet diplomacy“.

And when Simon first made threats to pull all WTA tournaments out of China “if it is not satisfied with the response to Peng’s allegation”, the IOC was still silent. Finally, almost three weeks after she first spoke out, its President Thomas Bach held a thirty-minute video call with Peng, claiming afterwards that she “was doing fine… she explained that she is safe and well”. Unconvincing? Definitely.

The WTA thought so too, claiming the evidence was “insufficient”. This might be an understatement; in what way could a potentially scripted, guarded thirty-minute video call possibly provide real, unequivocal “hard evidence” that Peng is safe and free? The answer is that it cannot.

On the issue of denial, IOC representative Dick Pound is perhaps the worst offender. He has on more than one occasion expressed emphatically that Peng “is fine”, no, really, “she’s fine“, and that any criticisms of the video call are “silly“.

When questioned in a CNN interview (and I urge everyone to watch this, in its entirety) on why Peng might have withdrawn her allegation of sexual assault in the email sent to Simon, he responded, blankly, “well I have no idea what that was”. He’d never heard of the email. This remains the current IOC line “Peng is safe, she’s well, we’ve video called twice now! And we’re going to set up an in-person meeting in January… when we arrive in China for the 2022 Winter Olympics”.

With the Winter Olympics due to commence in Beijing, the very city holding Peng captive, in less than two months, the IOC’s behaviour suddenly becomes clear. Their lack of urgency in securing Peng’s safety has become more and more infuriating and more glaringly neglectful as time has gone on.

Willfully believing every word China feeds to them through Peng’s coerced mouth, they are purposefully ignoring human rights violations and accusations of sexual abuse for the good of the Games.

In contrast, the WTA on Wednesday followed through on their earlier threats to withdraw their fixtures in China. This is a bold move, and if one positive could possibly be taken from this ongoing horror, it’s the hope radiated by the WTA actually putting their money where their mouth is, especially when it comes to supporting women’s rights.

It is so rare to see an organisation condemn instances of sexual abuse and then act on their words. Steve Simon meant it when he said “we expect this issue to be handled properly… the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship“. Despite China being one of WTA’s “most lucrative markets“, they’ve suspended all action within the country, perhaps until beyond 2022.

Questions are still being asked about what this might mean for the Winter Olympics. There is a general assumption that in the end, it will mean nothing at all. As with the ongoing controversy surrounding the Qatar 2022 World Cup, known corruption and human rights abuses have a little real impact on government and fan support for the sports they love. Outrage is usually short-lived, or at least short-sighted, and condemnation alone never goes very far.

Two weeks ago the mens’ Danish national football team released a statement on FIFA’s involvement in Qatar and their manifesto of criticisms ahead of the tournament next November. Some of their pledges are good, they display attempts at direct action, but the bottom line is that Denmark and every other qualified country will still be travelling to Qatar next year.

They will still be there, paying their way, contributing to the economy and, most significantly, promoting Qatar as a fun, welcoming state to the rest of the world. Compliance with this World Cup can only be seen as compliance with the Qatari regime. In instances such as these, boycotting is the only meaningful method of condemnation. The WTA has taken the lead on this front.

We are yet to see the results of the WTA’s withdrawal from China, but hopefully, it will lead to tangible progress. Hopefully, Peng Shuai will soon be seen outside of China, in public, without an escort. The real test will come in January with the beginning of the Australian Open; will Peng have the “chance” to “promote Chinese tennis” after all? I sincerely hope she will.

Words by: Annabel Cossins-Smith

Edited by: Laura Murphy

I'm a postgraduate currently student studying International Journalism with a focus on feminist and environmental journalism. For my undergraduate degree I studied History with special interests in social and political history which translates to my writing! I love to bake, cook, draw, paint, and spend hours and hours watching Netflix.
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