Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, made an allegation of sexual assault against a senior Communist party leader, disappeared for weeks, then reappeared in a series of videos released by state media. Her case has shown the dilemmas of dealing with a country that has a vast and growing market, but scant respect for human rights, freedom of expression or the rule of law. One international sporting body — the Women’s Tennis Association — handled its dilemma well. Another — the International Olympic Committee — did not.
Peng, a three-time Olympian, made her allegation against former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli in a social media post on November 2. It appears that censors quickly took down her post, references to the matter were erased from China’s walled-off internet and nothing more was heard from her. For a woman to disappear suddenly from view after making an allegation of sexual assault against a powerful man is chilling. The episode sends a bleak message about justice in China. If the authorities are investigating, they have not said.
It is not clear what might have happened had the WTA and its players not begun to demand assurances about Peng’s safety and a full, fair and transparent investigation into her allegations. Tennis players such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, with global fame and enormous social media followings, joined calls for information on her whereabouts. That pressure prompted a message, purportedly written by Peng and published by state media, saying the assault allegations were “not true” and that she had been “resting at home”. The WTA dismissed the message as lacking credibility.
By taking such a firm stance, the WTA has shown that a sporting body can hold an authoritarian state to account. Beijing subsequently released videos of Peng, at a dinner and at a sporting event, even if these are hard to take at face value. Undemocratic states crave the legitimacy sport brings and they respect the star power of top players. That means sporting bodies have influence — if they choose to use it.
Peng’s status as a top athlete able to attract support from high-profile foreign counterparts sets her apart. Yet she is one of a number of Chinese public figures, business people, journalists, activists and citizens who have been censured or have disappeared from view, sometimes indefinitely, after criticising officials or the state.
The IOC stands accused of legitimising such tactics after its president, Thomas Bach, joined a half-hour video call with Peng and then told the world she was safe and had requested that her privacy be “respected at this time”. But he left hanging obvious questions. Why was Peng not also answering calls from the WTA? Was she speaking free from outside pressure? And what was being done to investigate her allegation?
The difference in behaviour of the two organisations holds a wider lesson for foreigners doing business in China: you can try to stay away from politics, but politics will not stay away from you. The WTA has stuck by its values and may lose business as a result. The IOC was no doubt mindful that only 10 weeks remain until the Winter Olympics in Beijing. US president Joe Biden said last week he was considering a diplomatic boycott to protest against China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang. The publicity sparked by Peng’s case may intensify such calls.
Even a co-ordinated diplomatic snub might not concern Beijing unduly. Yet until the Games are over, not just politicians but corporate sponsors, governing bodies and athletes will have a powerful voice. They should consider how to use it.