Beijing Shows ‘Missing’ Tennis Star in Public. But Supporters Are Not Convinced.

State media journalists have released videos showing Peng Shuai is alive, but activists say that’s beside the point.
November 22, 2021, 9:38am
ioc olympic tennis peng shuai
A photo released by the International Olympic Committee shows President Thomas Bach speaks to Peng Shuai. Photo: IOC

Chinese state media journalists and the International Olympic Committee have released recent images of tennis star Peng Shuai to show that she is alive, but the videos sidestepped questions about whether or not Peng is free to speak her mind after her sexual abuse allegations against a former Communist Party leader triggered global uproar. 

Peng, 35, disappeared from the public eye after she accused China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of coercing her into having sex in an online post on Nov. 2. The post was swiftly deleted on the microblogging site Weibo and discussions about Peng have been wiped out in a blanket censorship campaign. Since then, Peng has not made any public remarks herself, while the Women’s Tennis Association said it was unable to reach her through different channels. 

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Tennis governing bodies and star players, including Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, have joined a global #WhereIsPengShuai campaign calling for her safety and an investigation into the sexual assault case. The WTA threatened to pull out of China over Peng’s disappearance. The case has also fueled calls to boycott the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. 

With the Chinese government under mounting pressure, state media outlet CGTN first published an email purportedly sent by Peng to the WTA, calling the sexual assault allegations “not true.” State media journalists then posted a slew of videos showing the tennis player attending a banquet, where a China Open executive was filmed telling Peng about the next day being Nov. 21. 

On Sunday, the official Weibo page of China Open showed images of Peng attending a youth tennis match in Beijing – smiling, waving and signing autographs for young players. The same day, Peng took part in a video call, along with a Chinese IOC official, with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. “She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC said in a statement

But the responses have not convinced Peng’s supporters that she is safe and free. In the videos, the tennis star was always accompanied by state-affiliated personnel and not once heard speaking for herself. On Weibo, Peng’s account remains unsearchable, and discussions about her are getting actively censored. No report about the global outcry about her silence could be found on the Chinese internet. 

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WTA said the state media videos are not enough to address concerns about her ability to communicate without coercion. It was quoted by Reuters as saying Peng’s call with the IOC “does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegation of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.” 

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, said that without giving Peng a chance to speak on her own, Beijing could not alleviate the concerns given its history of producing forced television confessions and videos showcasing members of persecuted groups, such as ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, appearing to live happy lives in China. 

“In a way it’s kind of gaslighting,” Wang told VICE World News. “The videos are all trying to show Peng is alive basically, but nobody is doubting she is alive. People are doubting whether she can actually speak freely and act freely without any coercion or pressure.” 

Activists say the tennis star could be under immense pressure to cooperate with authorities in making the furor from her allegations go away. 

The conspicuous absence of any official response to the sexual assault allegations shows how much of a taboo it is to talk about alleged wrongdoings of a former Communist Party leader. Hu Xijin, chief editor of the party-run tabloid Global Times, has referred to Peng’s allegations as “the thing people talked about.” 

Peng did not call for an investigation in her original post, which described an on-and-off affair that allegedly involved mutual affection, forced sex, and bullying by the former leader’s wife. Feminist activists have applauded Peng’s courage in speaking up on the injustice she felt while in a relationship with one of China’s most powerful men. Although Chinese officials castigated for corruption are often accused of having extramarital affairs, the women’s experiences are almost never heard in public. 

Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist in New York, said the case was not only about Peng’s own well-being but also the interests of the public. “It is not an issue of privacy given the status of the accused party,” Lü told VICE World News. “Peng may or may not want to address the public, but the government needs to address the public.”