China’s playbook when faced with criticism is neither cunning nor subtle: deny, lie, play the fool, hope he goes and, when all else fails, fiercely retaliate. . Everything is happening again in the case of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who crossed swords with the state by publicly accusing a former senior Politburo official of sexual assault.
After making the allegations in a November 2 article on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo, Ms. Peng disappeared. Beijing’s disinformation machine gained momentum: His accusations disappeared from his social media account and his name appeared to be blocked in searches. Foreign Ministry spokespersons insisted they were not aware of any allegations of sexual assault, and questions and answers regarding Ms. Peng were omitted from official transcripts.
Chinese state media on Wednesday published what they claimed was a screenshot of an email Ms. Peng sent to the Women’s Tennis Association, saying the allegations were false and “everything is fine” . It defies belief, and China should not be allowed to get away with it.
The world of professional tennis reacted with admirable and unequivocal ferocity. Steve Simon, the executive director of the WTA, has called for an investigation into Ms Peng’s allegations. He said he was ready to withdraw from the China tour. Men’s tennis governing body, the Association of Tennis Professionals, joined the case, with a statement saying she was “deeply concerned,” and a chorus of tennis players, including Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, expressed his shock and concern. The United Nations has called for a “full transparency” investigation and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Biden administration was calling for “verifiable evidence” of Ms. Peng’s whereabouts.
All of this poses a serious challenge to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Ms. Peng, 35, is no obscure dissenter. She is the only Chinese tennis player to reach the No. 1 ranking in the world, in her case in the women’s doubles, and she has already been hailed by the Chinese government as a model athlete – “like a cinch in tennis. feminine, ”as The People’s Daily wrote in 2013.
This breeze has turned into a scorching blast. In the closed and controlled world of Chinese politics, members of the political hierarchy are barred from public criticism of all kinds. When senior officials have been accused of sexual assault or other misconduct, it has usually been in the context of their purging of the party hierarchy. Ms. Peng’s target Zhang Gaoli, on the other hand, is a retired vice premier and a member of China’s highest authority, the Politburo Standing Committee.
The accusations come as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics next February. The idea of allowing a country that brutally suppresses critics and entire minorities to once again host the Olympic Games has already raised serious questions. President Biden said on Thursday that the United States is considering removing U.S. officials from the Games, and Human Rights Watch has called on major corporate sponsors of the International Olympic Committee to explain how they plan to use their influence to tackle human rights violations. human rights in China.
China’s response has been the usual mantra of keeping sport and politics separate. It is also the sad and typically selfish yawn of the International Olympic Committee. Politics and the Olympics have long been inextricably linked. This resonates especially in communist countries like the Soviet Union and East Germany who saw Olympic gold medals as validation of their legitimacy and prowess and were willing to cheat to get them. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has kept this legacy alive.
In itself, Ms. Peng’s case is not about geopolitics or the Olympics. It involves the disappearance of an athlete for bringing a credible MeToo charge against a man who wielded significant power and, she says, exploited that power to demand sexual favors. Even at this level, it’s hard to see how the IOC can willfully condone the removal of a world-class athlete as thousands of athletes from all over the world are about to land in China.
Like so many victims of China’s repressive system, Ms. Peng has done nothing but seek redress for a wrong. Yet the very simplicity of its fate inevitably leads to fundamental questions about China’s ability to host a global sporting event that claims to follow an Olympic ideal of building a better world through sport.
This is why it is essential to hold Beijing to account: where is Ms. Peng, and what to do with her allegations?