Chinese Feminists and Global Tennis Stars Ask, “Where Is Peng Shuai?”

On November 2, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. Her Weibo essay detailing their relationship was quickly censored, as were any mentions of it. The world has not heard from her since. Chinese feminists and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the organizing body of professional women’s tennis, are now demanding to know: “Where is Peng Shuai?”

Chinese feminist activists have projected messages supporting Peng Shuai and China’s #MeToo movement on buildings and bridges:

Their activism was matched by the WTA’s executive leadership and a number of players. Peng was once world No. 1 in doubles, and reached the singles semifinals in the 2014 U.S. Open. In a statement, the WTA said, “Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored,” and demanded an investigation into Zhang Gaoli’s behavior. The Washington Post reported that the statement was likely being censored in China—it did not appear on the WTA’s official Chinese-language Weibo account. Peng’s name is a sensitive term on Weibo, and unverified reports indicate that her image was removed from a photo gallery in China’s National Tennis Center:

The New York Times’ Christopher Clarey published an interview with Steve Simon, the head of the WTA Tour, who said potential sexual assault of WTA players “is something that simply can’t be compromised”:

Simon also called for an end to official Chinese censorship on the subject, and suggested the tour would consider no longer doing business in China if it did not see “appropriate results.”

“Obviously she displayed tremendous courage going public,” Simon said of Peng. “Now we want to make sure we’re moving forward to a place where a full and transparent investigation is conducted. Anything else, I think, is an affront to not only our players but to all women.”

[…] “We’ve received confirmation from several sources, including the Chinese Tennis Association, that she is safe and not under any physical threat,” Simon said. But Simon said that no one associated with the WTA Tour, including officials and active players, had been able to reach her directly to confirm her status. [Source]

Prominent women’s tennis players past and present weighed in with support for Peng Shuai on Twitter:

The men’s tour joined the WTA in calling for an investigation: “Separately, we stand in full support of WTA’s call for a full, fair and transparent investigation into allegations of sexual assault against Peng Shuai.” The world’s number-one ranked male player Novak Djokovic told the media that he was shocked by Peng’s disappearance and had seen her on tour a number of times. “It’s not much more to say than hope that she will be found, that she’s okay. It’s terrible…, I can imagine just how her family feels that she’s missing,” he added.

Men’s professional tennis players posted on Twitter as well:

The WTA’s decision to publicly back Peng Shuai and call for an investigation into Zhang Gaoli’s behavior is a notable departure from how other sports leagues have handled China-related controversies. Many leagues and sports-related companies are careful not to fall afoul of the Party for fear of losing access to the nation’s markets. Tennis is big business in China. More than one fifth of all tennis players worldwide are Chinese. In 2018, the WTA inked a 10-year deal to move its championship to Shenzhen. (Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, the 2020 Finals were cancelled. The 2021 Finals are currently being played in Guadalajara, Mexico.) The WTA stands to potentially lose that deal if Chinese authorities decide to take offense at the association’s support for Peng Shuai.

In 2019, after the South Park episode “Band in China” lampooned businesses’ willingness to self-censor to get into the Chinese market, the show was promptly banned in China. The NBA was also removed from Chinese airwaves and screens after Daryl Morey, then an executive with the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for Hong Kong protestors. The league allegedly lost as much as $400 million in revenue.

The NBA’s China issues continue even today. After Celtics center Enes Kanter called Xi Jinping a “brutal dictator” and released messages of solidarity with Tibetans, Uyghurs, the nation of Taiwan, and Hong Kong protestors, Celtics games were pulled from Chinese streaming sites. Although the NBA has not punished Kanter for his stance, they have tried to silence him. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Kanter related how two NBA officials approached him and told him to take off his shoes (which bore messages of support for Tibet), telling him, “We’re begging you.”

Kanter also wore a series of shoes, some custom-painted by Chinese-Australian cartoonist Badiucao, to draw attention to other human-rights abuses:

Badiucao is a constant target of the Chinese government’s international censorship efforts. Last month, the Chinese Embassy in Rome requested that the city of Brescia, Italy cancel a retrospective of Badiucao’s work. The town refused. From Elisabetta Povoledo at The New York Times:

[Mayor Emilio Del Bono of Brescia] and the president of the Brescia Musei Foundation, which runs the museum, responded with a letter emphasizing that the show in no way shed a bad light on China or its people, but that social critique was a function of art, and that Brescia had “always championed freedom of expression and would continue to do so,” Del Bono said.

[…] “I am fortunate that his city and this museum has an understanding of my art and has the courage to defend my right to expression,” Badiucao said.

[…] Badiucao said he and his family in Shanghai had been harassed by the Chinese authorities as well as Chinese nationalists in an effort to silence him. “It’s a pattern,” he said. [Source]

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