Peng Shuai Tells the West She Is Safe. But Her Name Is Still Censored for Chinese People.

The tennis player’s denial of her previous sexual assault allegation is nowhere to be found on the Chinese internet.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is attending the Beijing Games, meeting with Olympic officials, and getting interviewed by a French news outlet as the Chinese government tries to allay the global community’s concerns about her safety.

But people in China are still banned from talking about the athlete and her explosive sexual assault allegation against a former Communist Party leader.

The well-being of Peng has come under intense scrutiny after she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex in an online post in November. The post was swiftly removed and discussions about Peng have been wiped out from the Chinese internet in a blanket censorship campaign.

Outside China, state media tried to put out a star-studded #WhereIsPengShuai campaign by releasing a series of clips showing Peng dining, attending sports events, and meeting ex-NBA star Yao Ming. 

During the Beijing Winter Olympics, Peng watched a curling match and had dinner with Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympics Committee, according to an IOC statement on Monday. 

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The 36-year-old also spoke with French newspaper L’Équipe while being accompanied by a Chinese Olympic official. “I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way,” she told the newspaper, adding that she was the one who removed the post and did not want “further media hype.” In that interview, the former Wimbledon doubles champion also announced her retirement from professional tennis.

The videos and Peng’s own denial of sexual assault, however, are unavailable in China, where people have not heard her comments on the controversial post either from herself or through media interviews. While Olympic officials in Beijing are frequently asked about Peng’s situation at press conferences, the exchanges are missing from Chinese media reports. 

On Monday, search engine Baidu only displayed news articles about Peng before 2021, even though its Baidu Index shows a spike in search interest about her following her post on Nov. 2.

“She may be a topic of interest and concern outside China, but inside she has been completely erased,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. “This act of erasure speaks more clearly of the true situation than the assurances of the Chinese government and the IOC.”

Peng’s name remains a taboo across different social platforms. The microblogging site Weibo, where she first described the forced sexual encounter, is hiding Peng’s profile from getting searched. A search for her name returned posts from institutional accounts only. Users have been banned from posting in a tennis fan forum since Nov. 2. 

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Another popular social site Douban has also banned users from searching Peng’s name, citing “relevant laws and regulations.” On Quora-like Q&A forum Zhihu, a search on Monday for “Peng Shuai” returned no results.

On Instagram-like Xiaohongshu, the same search came back with three posts, and none of them were about the athlete. On Monday, one recent video could be found of Peng on China’s TikTok, Douyin, showing her attending a youth tennis match in Beijing in late November. 

Yaqiu Wang, a senior China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the continuing censorship around Peng showed the government did not trust the public would let go of her allegations.

“I think the government is deeply, deeply insecure. That's why the control is so strong,” Wang said. “I think they're absolutely worried that people would think differently and talk critically of the case and also Zhang Gaoli. People probably would not stop at talking about Zhang Gaoli. They would refer to other political leaders.”

Voices promoting women’s rights have been on the rise on the Chinese internet, leading to a growing #MeToo movement that hit executives and entertainment stars. Peng’s allegation initially prompted a wave of shock, sympathy, and support, as internet users circumvented censorship to discuss her case using euphemisms.

But mentions of Peng’s case are seldom seen within the Great Firewall these days. Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor who is tracking censorship for China Digital Times, said social media platforms might be able to spend less effort screening posts because of growing self-censorship. 

“Those who are still curious about it now largely understand how sensitive it is,” Liu said. “They would avoid the topic by themselves.”

Tagged:

worldnews, peng shuai, beijing 2022

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