The safety and whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai is of global concern after the former world No. 1’s disappearance from the public eye. Peng’s noticeable absence from social media comes after making sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the time since, the only “evidence” of her safety has come in state-released videos, many of which are being scrutinized.
Peng’s well-being has become an international incident. The WTA is concerned about her safety, and tennis players around the world are sharing their worries and amplifying Peng’s story. The potential human rights abuses being perpetuated against Peng for speaking out could have huge ramifications on the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Games are set to take place in Beijing, which is putting the IOC into damage control mode. The IOC seems to be bending over backwards to carry water for the Chinese government, raising concerns whether their insistence Peng is safe is genuine.
If you’ve had a difficult time following this story, or have only caught small pieces of it, today we dive in further to explain what’s been happening.
Who is Peng Shuai?
One of the largest sports stars in China, 35-year-old Peng Shuai is widely regarded as one of the best doubles players of all time. The former No. 1 in doubles had a career 22 wins, including titles at the French Open and Wimbledon. As a singles player, her greatest achievement came in 2014, when she reached the semi-finals of the U.S. Open, before losing to Caroline Wozniacki.
Peng’s international success made her a huge star in China, and she was still playing in 2020.
This started with a social media post
On November 2, 2021 Peng Shuai posted a 1,600 word blog on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo. In it she detailed how former vice premier Zhang Gaoli invited her into his home, and forced the tennis player to have sex with him.
In the post Peng acknowledged that she had a brief relationship with the political figure over a decade ago, but that Zhang approached her three years ago, when the assault occurred.
“That afternoon I did not agree at first and was crying all the time. Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you? I couldn’t describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse. Every day I was acting, which person is the real me?”
The post immediately began to circulate and became part of China’s #MeToo movement, but, as is customary when it comes to the internet in China, Peng’s post was quickly deleted from the service. After 20 minutes it was gone, though screenshots continued to be posted and shared on Weibo. Each was quickly met with their own deletions — and accounts were suspended for discussing Peng’s post. Weibo also disabled the ability to search for her account, making it impossible for people to keep track of the tennis star.
Fans began noticing that following her post there were no updates from Peng. In addition, nobody had seen the tennis star in public. Days turned into weeks, and concern mounted that something had happened to Peng for daring to speak out against a senior member of the CCP.
The West takes notice
While fans in China were deeply concerned something had happened to Peng, it was impossible to coordinate discussion about it. The censorship campaign from the government was in full effect, banning or silencing anyone who asked where she was. However, word soon made it to the world of tennis, and stars outside of China began amplifying Peng’s story.
Billie Jean King first posted about Peng on November 14, but it was this post from Naomi Osaka that gained the most notoriety.
Osaka posted about the tennis star on Twitter, as well as her Weibo account — though the latter was quickly suspended. Osaka was removed from the Chinese platform for discussing Peng’s whereabouts, and her account is still inactive today.
This immediately prompted people to learn about Peng and her place in the #MeToo movement, demanding those in positions of power find out what happened to the tennis player.
China’s campaign spins forward
Despite questions from the global media, fans, and officials from opposing governments, Chinese officials were adamant that Peng was safe, and happy in her Beijing home. This was cold comfort for those concerned for the player, wondering why the government felt the need to insist Peng was safe, while still locking down her social media accounts and preventing her from talking.
Then, members of the Chinese state-affiliated media began to participate, sharing photos of Peng they claimed assured the world she was safe.
Peng Shuai’s WeChat moments just posted three latest photos and said “Happy weekend”.— Shen Shiwei沈诗伟 (@shen_shiwei) November 19, 2021
Her friend shared the three photos and the screenshot of Peng’s WeChat moments. pic.twitter.com/tut8CEH6gu
This did little to assuage concerns, and intensified concerns the player was not safe. The amount of effort the country was going to in order to present the image of Peng being safe made it far more worrisome. Then, over the weekend, the effort to portray Peng’s safety shifted into full gear. Members of the Chinese government shared videos of the tennis star, saying it proved that she was safe — while adding that she just “wanted her privacy.”
The push came after the Biden administration pressured the Chinese government to prove Peng was safe. However, even with the new videos, few were convinced of either their veracity, or the idea that Peng was coerced in the videos. Not allowing the independent media to talk to her, or still having no public appearances, lent itself to the notion that things were still not well with Peng Shuai.
“I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing. While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient. As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
With tennis fans, players, WTA, the United States government, and the United Nations all concerned for Peng, there was only one western organization who was 100 percent towing the Chinese government line.
The International Olympic Committee says everything is a-okay
The only western entity granted the ability to speak to Peng was the International Olympic Committee (IOC). With the Winter Games set to take place in Beijing in 2022, the IOC are far from an impartial party in the situation.
On Sunday morning the Chinese government arranged for the IOC to have a video call with Peng. It should be noted that this video was not broadcast and the IOC denied CNN access to seeing it themselves — but they were quick to declare that everything is fine.
“I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern,” said Terho. “She appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”
This is extremely cold comfort for those concerned for the tennis player’s safety. Both the Chinese government and the IOC have a vested interest in acting like everything is fine. For China, the government detests negative portrayals of the government, and works to censor or silence criticism of the ruling party.
Meanwhile, the IOC wants to maintain the status quo. There is significant concern of potential boycotts in the Winter Games, with the US already considering a diplomatic boycott. Furthermore, the money-focused organizing committee has a history of doing whatever it takes to keep the money flowing without interruption, even if that means ignoring human rights violations.
What happens now?
There are still major concerns over the safety and freedom of Peng Shuai for speaking out against a member of the Communist Party. Attempts to assuage those fears have been at best, extremely manufactured. With the IOC being the only outside entity granted access to Peng — and they have motivation to say she’s safe, as well — it has done nothing to guarantee the tennis player’s safety.
At this time Peng’s social media accounts are still suspended. Her fans and the public have not seen her. The main entities still pushing for answers, the WTA, U.S. government and the U.N. have been rebuffed in their efforts.
The next pressure, and only possible push that could result in change could come if sponsors of the Olympics get involved and demand answers. Until that time people will still be wondering whether Peng Shuai is safe.