The #WhereIsPengShuai campaign was pushed into the background by the Novak Djokovic visa affair Down Under, but several top players are bringing their concerns to bring the issues into the spotlight again at the Australian Open.
I don't think people will ever really get to the bottom of this. I can't see her playing internationally again… she's not going to go overseas and play tournaments. Mark Dreyer, China Sports Insider
Last weekend marked 67 days since Peng Shuai accused Zhang Gaoli, China’s former vice-premier, of sexual assault and, during the time since, the former World Doubles No 1 all-but disappeared apart for a few stage-managed public appearances.
January 8 also happened to be Peng’s 36th birthday but, at the first Grand Slam of the year, attention had shifted away her, while the player remained silent, just as the Beijing authorities wanted.
Top seed Ash Barty has said she wants to see Peng playing again.
“I think the tennis community has come together,” she said when asked how important it was to keep putting pressure on China to dispel doubts about Peng’s well-being. “Obviously we’re all looking out for her safety.
“We all hope that she’s well. We hope that she’s doing okay. Hopefully it’s not too long until we see her back out here.”
The WTA suspended its tournaments in China last month, stating that it had ‘serious doubts’ about Peng’s safety and well being.
Despite two video calls with IOC president Thomas Bach, there remain doubts about how free Peng really is.
Victoria Azarenka told reporters that plans were afoot to find replacements for the axed events and no tournaments are likely to take place in China any time soon.
“There hasn’t been that much development in terms of contact with Peng Shuai even though from our side we will continue to make any and all efforts to make sure that she is safe, she feels comfortable,” Azarenka, a long-time member of the WTA Players’ Council, said at the Australian Open. “Hopefully we will get to hear from her personally at some point.
“I think that’s the goal, the main goal right now.
“I think right now, it’s a process. The process is obviously not public at the moment because there is no certainties or any decisions or substitutions that are in play.
“The process is there. As soon as we have more concrete information, it will definitely be shared.
“Right now it’s still up in the air, but there is work behind the scenes for sure.”
Another former World No 1, Garbiñe Muguruza, the 3rd seed in Melbourne, fears the real truth about the Peng Shuai case will never be known.
“Are we going to know something about this?” Muguruza told reporters ahead of the Australian Open. “I don’t know, I think it’s a complicated country to deal with.
“It’s a little bit not moving forward, I feel. It’s just there since months and months.
“It seemed like for a moment, okay, we’re going to find out what’s happening.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult to find a real truth and for her to be able to talk freely.”
Muguruza approves of the action the WTA has taken: ”I feel like this is something that the WTA has done great.
“I think they’ve showed a lot of courage and character by supporting these and taking these strong decisions.”
Peng’s accusations, alleged on social media in November, was the first time that the #MeToo movement had touched China’s ruling Communist Party.
“For me, I haven’t heard any news,” said Japan’s Naomi Osaka, after she moved into the second round at Melbourne Park.
“I’m not sure if that’s concerning or not, but I think the WTA, the whole organisation, they handled it really well. I’m really proud of them.
“I feel like it’s a situation where we need more information, which is definitely really hard. Kind of I think everyone is waiting.”
Meanwhile, Peng has remain locked in the shadows, unable to compete at the Australian Open.
Earlier this month, Alize Cornet brought the lingering questions back to the surface.
“I’m still a little bit worried about [Peng],” the French player said. “I don’t know where is the truth and where are the lies.”
Cornet was among the first to seek answers with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai, and Osaka, Serena Williams and the whole sporting world were quick to respond, asking the same, but the Frenchwoman is not convinced the WTA’s action is enough.
“I’m not sure that it [changed] something,” she added.
“I felt a bit responsible for the whole wave that followed my tweet.
“In a way it was a good thing, I think the world needed to hear what was happening, because the situation was not normal and I felt that things were going wrong.
“I must say that this whole affair still makes me uncomfortable, I don’t know how it is, I don’t know what the truth is and what the lies are.
“The truth is, I don’t know what else to believe anymore. Now I follow all this more from the outside and I only wish the best. I think about what I could do, I did, and now I wish her all the best and that she is well.”
Mark Dreyer, the Beijing-based founder of China Sports Insider, explained: “The average Chinese person knows absolutely nothing about it. Generally it was completely scrubbed. On social networks and among traditional media.
“As soon as something becomes sensitive, the media know they’re going to get in trouble if they talk about it. So they just don’t.”
Dr Susan Brownell, an internationally-recognised expert on Chinese sport, says it is possible to ‘climb over the wall’ of suppression, but unfiltered access to foreign media requires work and know-how.
“So most people’s lens to the outside world is refracted by algorithms, artificial intelligence and manpower,” Dreyer said. “The censorship is incredibly effective.”
According to analysis by the New York Times and ProPublica, the Chinese state dug into a ‘tested playbook’ to wipe this scandal from the national conversation.
Using tactics honed during other storms, such as the early days of coronavirus, posts referencing Peng’s claims were deleted, while discussions around topics including ‘tennis’ were narrowed and hundreds of keywords were banned.
Some suppression tools are believed to dupe users by allowing them to see posts, unaware that they have been hidden from everyone else.
“Don’t underestimate just quite how efficient and widespread the censorship is,’ Dreyer added.
For a while, Peng herself vanished from the public eye, but as China scrambled to stamp out the fires at home, concern from outside grew too hot for authorities to ignore.
Eventually it became clear this would not blow over and, for once, a sporting body would not be cowed and even the UN demanded proof of her whereabouts, prompting China’s international PR machine into action.
In November, a foreign ministry spokesperson lamented ‘malicious hype’ and the ‘politicisation’ of the issue.
State-media stooges and fake Twitter accounts hit back at criticism. Twitter is said to have removed 97 suspicious profiles.
After nearly 3 weeks, Peng did resurface, and then came several more stilted public appearances.
Each new attempt to suggest all is well was less convincing than the last, and only served to heighten scrutiny and scepticism abroad.
“What she was saying… who she was talking about, it’s going to be seen as incredibly sensitive – she’s going to be under a lot of pressure not to breathe word of that again,” Dreyer said.
“I think the implication would be clear – if she steps out of line, she’s going to be in a lot of trouble.”
There are enough examples of high-profile people being arrested in China, never to be heard from again but Peng’s international profile, together with the global attention her story has received, has altered the stakes.
WTA chief Steve Simon harbours ‘serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation’, and still wants a ‘full and transparent investigation’ into Peng’s accusations.
As China stands firm, the circus surrounding Djokovic suggests they may have ridden out the choppiest waters, even if lone voices are still keeping the Peng issues alive.
“I don’t think people will ever really get to the bottom of this,” adds Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower. “I can’t see her playing internationally again… she’s not going to go overseas and play tournaments.”
Eventually, he believes, people will simply move on and recent events suggest many already have, which could prove costly for the WTA, for whom China had become an important market.
“Tennis actually has an interesting status in China,” Brownell says. “It was seen as an elite, western sport that powerful, wealthy people played.
“That brought symbolism for China. For now, though, the country seem content to go without.
“The WTA have said: we need these questions answered… well they’re not going to be,” Dreyer said. “Not when sport in China has been sidelined by coronavirus concerns so no one there will notice the boycott for another year or so.”
Meanwhile, Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton has called on celebrities and advocates of the #MeToo movement to speak up for Peng.
“I don’t understand how, in the year 2021, in the #MeToo age, we can have an international female tennis star who claims to have been raped and sexually assaulted, and she’s now effectively under house arrest and has had her social media account wiped, and somehow that’s behaviour that we should tolerate,” Dutton told Nine Newspapers in an exclusive interview that was partly published on 10 January.
The minister, who has not been afraid to directly criticise Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan, said it was better to publicly speak out against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ‘otherwise the behaviour won’t change’.
“I find it quite remarkable … when you look at the power of the #MeToo movement in Western societies,” Dutton said. “We wouldn’t tolerate, and nor would we ever want to tolerate, the suggestion that if somebody had been raped, that it wasn’t going to be addressed.
“And not to mention the plight of tens of thousands of others who find themselves in the same position where they’re either threatened or their human rights are violated or otherwise, the Uyghurs and the rest.
“And so, part of my judgment in being honest about these things is that I think if we want change, and we want China to continue to be a great power, but to abide by the rule of law, then we should be speaking about it.”
The bottom line is that Peng Shuai saga began on 2 November and, as Beijing prepares to host another Olympics in February, doubts still remain about her safety and freedom.