A global clamour is growing, which even the closed ears of Beijing’s totalitarian elite have found impossible to shut out. ‘Where is Peng Shuai,’ the world wants to know. And ‘Is Peng Shuai safe?’
For those still unaware, Peng is the Chinese tennis star who disappeared from public view three weeks ago, after using local social media to accuse one of the country’s former vice-premiers of committing a serious sexual assault on her.
The fallout from her whistleblowing has been instructive. And chilling.
Much has been said and written by Chinese apologists, partners and investors about the nation’s technological and infrastructure advancements. What is also clear, though, is that the Chinese regime has a very different approach to female emancipation and the exigencies of the #MeToo era.
Peng is the Chinese tennis star who disappeared from public view three weeks ago, after using local social media to accuse one of the country’s former vice-premiers of committing a serious sexual assault on her
What is also clear, though, is that the Chinese regime has a very different approach to female emancipation and the exigencies of the #MeToo era
The evidence suggests that if a woman were to accuse a male Politburo member of sexual abuse, the party apparatus is unlikely to express concern, nor launch a public investigation. It certainly won’t apologise. Or simply just ignore her. The Beijing solution, it seems, is to make the complainant vanish. Then the problem will also go away. All online traces of the kerfuffle will be suppressed or hidden behind the so-called Great Firewall of China — the state’s digital censorship arm.
That policy is relatively straightforward and unobtrusive, if the woman concerned is just another face in the crowd; a relative nobody in a population of more than one billion that is used to being pushed around, imprisoned or terminated by those on high.
It is less easy to carry off without wider comment when the accuser happens to be Peng Shuai, a genuine international star — and heroine to millions of Chinese at home and abroad. It is difficult to erase her from current public consciousness, let alone history.
The 35-year-old has won two singles titles, and 23 doubles titles including the 2013 Wimbledon and the 2014 French Open championships. She also reached the singles semi-finals of the U.S. Open, only the third Chinese tennis player in history to get so far in a Grand Slam. Her highest position in the singles ranking was 14.
But she did not attract sustained worldwide attention until the extraordinary events of earlier this month.
Tennis star Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli (right), Former Vice Premier of the People’s Republic of China, of rape
Peng Shuai, 35, was said to have disappeared when her social media profiles were scrubbed following the accusation
On November 2, Peng posted an incendiary statement on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site. In it she accused Zhang Gaoli, a member from 2012 to 2018 of the country’s most powerful political body, the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, of sexual assault.
She claimed that for several years she and Zhang had an on-off extramarital affair, which he had wanted to keep secret.
The relationship had ceased as Zhang, now 75, rose through the Communist Party ranks. He had expressed concern to Peng that she might tape their encounters, she said. But around three years ago he had contacted her again. She was invited to play tennis with him and his wife, she claimed.
Peng said she was then sexually assaulted at Zhang’s home. ‘I never consented that afternoon, crying all the time,’ she recalled. It sounded like rape.
Peng wrote that she couldn’t provide evidence to underpin her allegation, but was determined to speak out.
‘Like an egg hitting a rock, or a moth to the flame, courting self-destruction, I’ll tell the truth about you,’ she warned Zhang.
The post was deleted by state censors within half an hour and Peng’s Weibo account went dark. The Chinese internet was also swiftly ‘cleansed’ of references to the star; comments about her were disabled and other keywords blocked.
But it was too late. Peng’s J’accuse had gone viral.
The next step was perhaps inevitable. Certainly, it was straight out of the Chinese Communist Party’s playbook. Peng also disappeared from sight. The state media ignored the story and the Chinese foreign ministry refused to comment. Zhang was also silent on her claims.
Days passed. Fears for her grew. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) threatened to pull out of tournaments in China altogether.
Chief executive Steve Simon said he had received ‘assurances’ from the Chinese Tennis Association that Peng was ‘safe and not under any physical threat’. But no one from the WTA was able to contact her to confirm that.
Simon made clear that the WTA expected an investigation into Peng’s claims. ‘This is bigger than the business,’ he said. ‘Women need to be respected and not censored.’
The furore increased. The hashtag #whereisPengShuai went viral. Tennis icons such as Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova added their voices.
Under the weight of this scrutiny, the tactics of the Chinese authorities changed. Last Wednesday, China’s state-run English-language outlet, the China Global Television Network, published a letter on Twitter, which it claimed was sent from Peng to the WTA boss.
It read: ‘Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent.
‘The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor I am unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.’
The screenshot of the letter included a visible cursor in the text. The WTA said it did not believe that the letter had been written by Peng. The tweet only increased their concern for her safety.
Chinese human rights campaigners said the language used was similar to that in other forced confessions by Chinese prisoners.
The propaganda counter-offensive continued. On Friday, four undated photographs of a smiling Peng were published on a Chinese state-affiliated Twitter account. Over the weekend, Chinese state media outlets released a flurry of videos on social media that purported to show Peng, safe and unconcerned — if not entirely unaware — of the global fears for her wellbeing.
And on Sunday, the editor of the Global Times posted footage of a smiling Peng attending a junior tennis tournament in Beijing.
The same journalist released video of her eating at a restaurant in the city. Observers say the scene appeared staged and the conversation stilted, to emphasise that it was taking place on Saturday.
Other images showed her signing tennis balls. One was retweeted by the Paris correspondent of a Chinese state-affiliated outlet. Like all the Peng-related official output, this was for foreign consumption only. Twitter is blocked in China.
The latest manifestation of the Chinese pushback occurred on Sunday when Peng, appearing for the first time before foreign officials since her disappearance, had a 30-minute-long video link call with the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach. Alas, their conversation has only served to raise more questions than answers.
Not all those questions are about Beijing’s human rights record and Peng’s safety.
They concern the powerful global bodies and corporations that appear unwilling to condemn abuses by the economic behemoth that China has become. Too much is at stake, financially.
In a statement released after the video call, the IOC said of Peng: ‘(She) was doing fine, which was our main concern.’
The IOC released one still photograph of the conversation, rather than the video itself. The image showed the back of Bach’s head and, on screen, Peng smiling at him.
‘At the beginning of the 30-minute call, Peng Shuai thanked the IOC for its concern about her wellbeing,’ the IOC statement recounted.
‘She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time. She prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now,’ it said. ‘Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis.’
Also in on the call was the IOC Athletes’s Commission chair, Emma Terho.
‘She appeared to be relaxed,’ Terho said in the statement. ‘I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.’ All’s fine. Move along there’s nothing to see. Respect Peng’s privacy, please.
The IOC statement might have been written by President Xi’s propaganda department, such was its anodyne tone and lack of inquiry or insight.
Proof all was well? Not according to Steve Simon of the WTA and many other China watchers.
He said: ‘It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.
The former doubles world number one signed giant tennis balls at a children’s tournament in Beijing on Sunday
‘This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.’
Who had set up the video call? What parameters had the IOC agreed to? Where was Peng when she spoke? Was she acting under coercion when she did so?
None of these crucial points were addressed. Or even apparently important to the IOC. But then there is a lot at stake for that organisation.
Peng joined IOC President Thomas Bach for a Zoom call on Sunday. The IOC said it ‘was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine’
In a matter of months, the 2022 Winter Olympics will begin. Its location? You guessed it. Beijing.
Thanks to the pandemic, the IOC posted a $55 million (£40 million) revenue deficit in 2020 because of the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, which took place without spectators this year. The IOC cannot afford another financial disaster.
Therefore, calls for a Beijing boycott to protest human rights abuses are being studiously ignored at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.
During the video call, Thomas Bach even invited Peng to join him at dinner when he arrives in Beijing in January, ahead of the festivities the following month.
Peng Shuai (second left) showed up at the opening ceremony of a teenager tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday morning
‘She gladly accepted,’ the IOC statement cooed. How convivial. As long as Peng is allowed to attend by the authorities, of course. Human Rights Watch described the video call as ‘disturbing’.
But not everyone is critical of the IOC’s limited intervention. On yesterday’s Radio 4 Today programme Sebastian Coe made a case for what he called ‘quiet diplomacy’.
The former athletic great, chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee and the British Olympic Association, is now head of World Athletics.
Lord Coe said it was better for Bach to ‘reach out and achieve what he did yesterday’.
Coe described the possibility of a diplomatic boycott, which has been mooted in the U.S. and in Britain by such figures as former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, as a ‘hollow’ and ‘rather meaningless gesture’.
He added: ‘Nobody, me included, has taken lightly the importance of human rights. [But] my instinct is that it is better to use these global opportunities, and the Olympic Games is arguably the biggest of them all, to make these points [in person] and if necessary, firmly.’
What will Beijing do next? Can a lone woman who refused to remain silent when allegedly attacked by a senior party apparatchik hope to walk away unscathed?
For the moment, the fate of Peng Shuai, on whom all this international angst and politicking is focused, remains unclear.
Seven people including Peng were at the Sichuanese restaurant, said the manager, Zhou Hongmei, adding that they ate in a private room and were joined by the restaurant’s owner