When the world’s best skiers, skaters and other winter athletes gather in Beijing on February 4 for the Olympic Games, there is a good chance that the world’s attention will rather be focused on a Chinese tennis player.
The international outrage that erupted last week over the fate of Peng Shuai, one of China’s most capable tennis professionals, was rightly focused on her whereabouts and safety after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese deputy prime minister, of sexual assault.
However, the Chinese Communist Party is more concerned about how to destroy the rapidly evolving scandal – and destroy it quickly. Because both Peng’s allegations and the party’s cruel and incompetent response to them have revealed much about the nature of power and suppression in President Xi Jinping’s China.
The party’s response to Peng’s allegation, made on November 2 in a social media post, was at least initially depressingly predictable and effective. The post was quickly decreased by sensors. All references to the 35-year-old Peng, a former top 20 singles player and two-time Grand Slam doubles champion, have been deleted from China’s walled internet. After a day or two of excited online chatting, encouraged by slang and code words to evade the sensors, Peng’s case got cold.
As far as human rights and other violations are concerned, what happens in China too often remains in China. But in this case, the party failed to provide that the Women’s Tennis Association and Peng’s counterparts might not stand still as one of their own had disappeared.
On November 14, Steve Simon, WTA chairman and CEO, demanded assurances about Peng’s safety and well-being, 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 allegedly written by Peng, which assured Simon that she was doing well and described the allegations of assault as “not true”. “I just rested at home,” the message added. Simon dismissed the message as unbelievable, saying it contributed to his concerns about Peng’s security 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.
The Chinese party state made another attempt over the weekend to control the crisis, which releases 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 requested that her privacy be “respected at this time”.
The party still has a big problem at hand. Unlike the WTA in recent days, the IOC has never shown a willingness to speak truth with Chinese power. It’s hard to see how anything other than leaving Peng China – for example, to practice 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 can she say? Her detailed allegations against a man of Zhang’s status are unprecedented. He served for five years on the party’s most powerful body, the standing committee of the politburo.
How many other party cadres have their power to harass and abusing 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 about similar experiences?
The party will therefore try to keep Peng in a controlled limbo indefinitely, while hoping that the rest of the world will eventually lose interest in her story.
There is only one problem with that strategy. The Australian Open women’s final will be held on January 29, six days before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
If the world’s best tennis players at that time still ask “Where is Peng Shuai?”, China runs the risk of turning the Olympics into an event that reflects far from glory on the country and its leaders, but rather an international embarrassment word.