When the world’s best skiers, skaters and other winter athletes convene in Beijing for the Olympics on February 4, there is a good chance that the world’s attention will instead be focused on a Chinese tennis player.
The international furore that erupted last week over the plight of Peng Shuai, one of China’s most accomplished tennis professionals, is rightly focused on her whereabouts and safety after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese vice-premier, of sexual assault.
The Chinese Communist party, however, is more concerned about how to quash — and quash quickly — the rapidly developing scandal. For both Peng’s allegations and the party’s cruel and inept response to them have revealed much about the nature of power and repression in President Xi Jinping’s China.
The party’s response to Peng’s allegation, made in a social media post on November 2, was depressingly predictable and effective, at least initially. The post was quickly taken down by censors. All references to the 35-year-old Peng, a former top 20 singles player and twice Grand Slam doubles champion, were erased from China’s walled-off internet. After a day or two of excited online chatter, abetted by slang and code-words to evade the censors, Peng’s case went cold.
Where human rights and other abuses are concerned, what happens in China too often stays in China. But in this instance, the party failed to anticipate that the Women’s Tennis Association and Peng’s peers might not stand idly by as one of their own was disappeared.
On November 14, Steve Simon, WTA chair and chief executive, demanded assurances about Peng’s safety and wellbeing, as well as a full, fair, transparent and uncensored investigation into her allegations. “#WhereIsPengShuai,” tennis star Naomi Osaka added on Twitter.
Chinese state television’s international arm responded by publishing a message, purportedly written by Peng, assuring Simon that she was fine and describing the assault allegations as “not true”. “I’ve just been resting at home,” the message added. Simon dismissed the message as not credible, said it added to his concerns for Peng’s safety and even threatened to sever the WTA’s lucrative commercial ties with China. He and Peng were supported by tennis greats past and present, such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.
Over the weekend the Chinese party state made another attempt to contain the crisis, releasing videos of Peng at a dinner on Saturday and a tennis event on Sunday. It also arranged a half-hour video call between Peng and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, who said she was safe and had requested that her privacy be “respected at this time”.
The party still has a big problem on its hands. Unlike the WTA in recent days, the IOC has never demonstrated a willingness to speak truth to Chinese power. It is hard to see how anything short of letting Peng leave China — for example, to train in the US and rejoin the women’s tour — will satisfy her global supporters.
Any reassurances Peng gives while in China cannot be taken at face value. But if she is allowed to travel overseas, what more might she have to say? Her detailed allegations against a man of Zhang’s standing are unprecedented. He served on the party’s most powerful body, the politburo standing committee, for five years.
How many other party cadres have used their power to harass and abuse women in a country where victims cannot speak freely and the media cannot report freely? How many more of China’s 700m women might be inspired by Peng’s example to speak openly of similar experiences?
So the party will try to keep Peng in a controlled limbo indefinitely, while hoping the rest of the world eventually loses interest in her story.
There is just one problem with that strategy. The Australian Open women’s final will be held on January 29, six days before the Olympics opening ceremony.
If at that time the world’s best tennis players are still asking “Where is Peng Shuai?”, China risks seeing the Olympics turn into an event that, far from reflecting glory on the country and its leaders, becomes instead an international embarrassment.