The headlines may have died down, but Peng Shuai’s situation remains of grave concern as fears grow that the authorities in China are keeping the former Doubles World No 1 under wraps and preventing her from speaking freely.
It’s a terrible story, what is unfolding with Peng Shuai. We played many, many times on Tour. All the players know who she was as she has won Grand Slams and been number one in the world in doubles. From the players’ point of view, and the Tour, we just want her to be safe and hopefully everything is OK, but things are unfolding and we just have to wait and see how that plays out. Sam Stosur
Steve Simon, the WTA’s Chairman and CEO continues to be ‘deeply concerned’ about the whereabouts of Peng, and her ability to communicate freely after her allegations that a powerful politician forced her to have sex.
Peng, a three-time Olympian, dropped out of public view after she uploaded her 1,900 word post to her Weibo account on 2 November, accusing former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse, which was removed after just 20 minutes by authorities, while her profile has since been restricted.
In a bid to quash concerns, videos and photos of Peng were posted online, either by journalists or media outlets under the control of the country’s communist party.
“Steve Simon has reached out to Peng Shuai via various communication channels,” the WTA said in a statement to AP on Saturday. “He has sent her two emails, to which it was clear her responses were influenced by others.
“He remains deeply concerned that Peng is not free from censorship or coercion, and decided not to re-engage via email until he was satisfied her responses were her own, and not those of her censors.
“The WTA remains concerned about her ability to communicate freely, openly, and directly.”
IOC President Thomas Bach spoke with Peng on a video call last week and although a photo of the call was released, no details were forthcoming other than saying that she said she was well.
The IOC said in a statement that Peng appeared to be ‘doing fine’ and had requested privacy, which critics have suggested was the result of coercion.
Bach stated that he was confident that Peng was safe and well because she gave a ‘relaxed impression’ during their video call.
“We also offered a meeting when we come in January, and this video call, and this 30-minutes’ conversation, gave a relaxed impression we can all conclude that she is safe and well,” Bach said during an online interview with the AIPS Young Reporters group.
”But we will keep in contact and this is why we proposed to have a meeting there in January when we come to Beijing.
“She was telling us that she was with her family and friends and wants to be involved in her beloved sport of tennis.”
Also attending the video call was Li Lingwei, who is a former athlete that has worked in various governing roles within China, including being a representative of the Chinese People’s Congress (1998-2003, 2013-) and a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Congress (2013-2018).
Human Rights Watch criticised the IOC for working with China’s propaganda department in arranging the call with Peng.
“The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault,” said Yaqui Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.
On Tuesday, senior IOC member Dick Pound denied the organisation had vouched for the safety of Peng in order to avoid angering 2022 Olympic host Beijing.
“That’s complete nonsense … there was generalised concern about what may or may not have happened to her,” Pound, the IOC’s longest serving member, told Reuters in a telephone interview from Montreal.
“So what the IOC did was very quietly put a little bit of an Olympic network together with our president, the chair of our Athletes’ Commission, one of our senior members in China, and they got in touch with her, and she was happy to be on the call.”
Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson, at a briefing last week, criticised Bach for failing to make clear publicly whether he had asked Peng if she had access to a lawyer or wanted to file charges around serious sexual assault claims.
“From an Olympic point of view, having accomplished what the objective was, which was to say ‘are you OK?’, and their collective conclusion was that she was OK, and not under duress, and that’s what we wanted to know,” added Pound.
“Now the others are all saying ‘you should have solved the harassment problem’. On a 30-minute phone call? These things take ages to get resolved, no matter what country you are in.”
Pound also felt critics of the IOC only seemed to voice their concerns with the video call after failing to get hold of Peng themselves.
“What seemed to change after that [call] was all of the wannabes that were unable to get in contact with her sort of said ‘well the IOC botched it’ and ‘this was all organised by the Chinese’ and so on,” said Pound.
“This is a three-time Olympian, so of course the Olympic family is concerned for her.
“My guess is the Chinese government understood that this could be a real hot potato so they did not seem to interfere in the call or anything like that.”
Peng’s case has increased calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Games from rights groups and others already critical of Beijing over its policies in Hong Kong and treatment of minority Muslims, which the United States says amounts to genocide.
US President Joe Biden has said Washington is considering such a boycott, under which US officials would not attend the opening or closing ceremonies.
The whereabouts of 75-year-old Zhang, the man accused by Peng, has not been reported, and he has not spoken publicly about the incident.
Zhang stepped down from the powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee about three years ago.
One of Peng’s former doubles partners, US Open champion Sam Stosur, has said she hopes she is safe and well, and that the tour and players are waiting to see how the ‘terrible story’ unfolds.
“It’s a terrible story, what is unfolding with Peng Shuai,” Stosur told Australian media. “We played many, many times on Tour.
“All the players know who she was as she has won Grand Slams and been number one in the world in doubles.
“From the players’ point of view, and the Tour, we just want her to be safe and hopefully everything is OK, but things are unfolding and we just have to wait and see how that plays out.”
Current and former tennis players, including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, have joined the calls seeking to confirm she was safe.
World No 1 Novak Djokovic said it would be strange to hold tournaments in China unless the ‘horrific’ situation was resolved.
Simon has threatened to pull WTA events out of China unless he gets clear answers and assurances that Peng is speaking freely.
It is the first sports body to publicly push back against China, which supplies critical income to other sports bodies like the IOC and the NBA.
While the whirlwind around Peng seems to be dying down, questions remain: What has happened to her, and what will happen to her?
Yaxue Cao, writing in China Change, a news and commentary website from those working for change, explains that, for the Chinese Communist Party, Peng’s revelation, the timing of it, and the quick and overwhelming reaction from outside of China was an unexpected political incident.
In less than 100 days, China will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, from 4-20 February, and if the 2008 Summer Olympics was China’s grand debut on the world stage as a great power, then the coming Olympics will be a grand glorification of the CCP, Xi Jinping, and free PR for China’s global agenda.
Given the fact that millions of Uyghurs have been placed in concentration camps and subjected to forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China, that freedoms in Hong Kong have been in free-fall over the last couple of years, and that repression inside China has continued to worsen, the 2022 Winter Olympics has been met with persistent calls for a boycott.
Recently, the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and some EU member countries have been weighing a diplomatic boycott, and China is working overtime to minimise the impact of countries carrying out diplomatic boycotts.
Yaxue writes that for Xi Jinping, who sees the sports event as a scene of ‘hundreds of states paying respect to China’, Peng’s revelation and its aftermath could not have come at a worst time.
In the eyes of the Party, the Peng incident occurred at the wrong time and in the wrong manner, which hurt China’s plans for the winter Olympics, damaged China’s image, and caused a negative global response.
To the Party, she has committed a grave political blunder and by now, there must have been scores of government officials, sports administrators, coaches, friends, family members, and perhaps even national security agents, who have spoken to her, or threatened her, convincing her of what a terrible mistake she has made to the detriment of the country.
The CCP’s standard modus operandi is suppression and cover up, and its initial act in response to the international outcry was the email to Simon at the WTA published by CGTN on 17 November, two weeks after Peng posted her revelation on Weibo:
The email could have been written by anyone and reflects how China is handling the Peng Shuai incident: deny the sexual allegations, state that she is safe and sound, and warn the WTA from ever speaking about Peng without her permission.
On 25 November, a Chinese businessman named Ding Li, who claimed to be Peng’s friend, posted on Twitter a screenshot of another email from Peng to Simon, this time in Chinese and dated 22 November, in which she said the WTA is ‘not allowed to hype my privacy’.
In the same tweet, he also demanded: “We need Simon to give us an explanation: Why has he disregarded Peng Shuai’s email! Why has he not replied to her?”
There are many examples of individuals who have disappeared from public view in China as a result of attracting wide international attention on an event that reflects poorly on the state.
China’s default practice is to (1) deny it and (2) accuse the international community of ‘hyping’ the event to denigrate China.
Peng’s case is no different, as is already abundantly clear.
“I hope some people stop the deliberate and malicious hype, not to mention politicising the issue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press conference in Beijing on 23 November.
Peng has not gone on Chinese TV to deny the allegations she made and condemn the international community for using her to attack China, but her virtual meeting with the IOC officials is the equivalent of a CCTV appearance.
According to Yaxue, Peng Shuai will not be let free, and it is unlikely the Chinese government will let her leave China to play tennis again, nor will the WTA or any of her tennis friends outside of China be able to speak to her freely.
They do not have to put her in jail in order to imprison her, and her home can be turned into a prison with surveillance, by both minders and cameras.
She is 35 years old, and China will likely force her to retire and make her disappear from public view.
Yaxue has a few words for the international tennis community and governments: “You can demand ‘verifiable’ evidence of Peng Shuai’s whereabouts and wellbeing, but you will never get it.
“You can demand a ‘transparent’ investigation into the allegations she made, but let’s not kid ourselves -We have a pandemic that originated in China raging for nearly two years now, and we can’t even get China to work on a proper investigation.
“What are the chances we will get a proper investigation into Peng Shuai’s allegations?”
These are the chilling words of Yaxue Cao, who founded and launched the China Change website in June 2013 with Tom M Yaxue, having grown up in northern China during the Cultural Revolution before attending Peking University in Beijing and then moving to the United States to study literature where she now lives in Washington, DC.