#WhereIsPengShuai: The World Wants To Know

A campaign initiated by Chinese feminists to locate the disappeared tennis star Peng Shuai has gone global. Many of the world’s biggest tennis stars—including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Andy Murray—have posted messages on Twitter with the hashtag #whereispengshuai:

The campaign made headlines across the globe:

Peng has not been heard from since November 2, when she posted an essay on her personal Weibo account in which she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, of sexually assaulting her. Her post was scrubbed from the Chinese internet and social media, and even her name became a censored word. Bloomberg News reported on why the allegation is so explosive:

“This is not about protecting Zhang, but protecting a former PBSC member from being accused by a young female for a sexual offense,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “Xi could and did bring down a former PBSC member. But it’s one thing for him to do so, quite a different matter for a mere celebrity.” [Source]

Concerns for Peng’s safety increased after two bizarre tweets from Chinese state media claimed to prove that Peng was safe and well. The government’s official position remains feigned ignorance. At a press conference on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian made the implausible claim: “I’m not aware of the situation.” Yet China’s international-facing state media have made multiple efforts to dispel fears about her whereabouts. On November 17, CGTN’s official Twitter account posted an email that Peng Shuai purportedly wrote to the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon:

The WTA dismissed the email, with Simon openly questioning its authenticity: “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.” The email was bizarre for a number of reasons, not least because it appeared to be a screenshot of a document-in-progress, with the cursor still visible. CGTN did not post the email on any platforms accessible from mainland China, nor did any other state media outlets. CGTN has a long history of airing forced confessions—a practice for which it lost its broadcast license in England. On Twitter, Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, explained the logic behind CGTN’s crude tweet:

On November 19, CGTN reporter Shen Shiwei tweeted a series of three selfies reportedly posted on Peng’s private WeChat account:

The selfies, too, were not shared publicly by CGTN on Chinese social media platforms. The third selfie in the series, in which Peng holds up a Kung Fu Panda figurine in front of a portrait taken with Winnie the Pooh, raised eyebrows. Pandas and Winnie the Pooh can be interpreted as veiled references to China’s Domestic Security Department and Xi Jinping, respectively, although they should not necessarily be interpreted as such.

Both tweets triggered an avalanche of responses:

The response from the sporting world has been a study in contrasts. Women’s tennis players and the WTA have been among the loudest voices demanding proof of Peng’s freedom. The International Olympic Committee and the International Federation of Tennis, the governing body of world tennis, on the other hand, have kept their distance from the international movement. The WTA potentially stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars for its advocacy. In an interview with CNN, WTA CEO Simon said, “We have to start as a world making decisions that are based upon right and wrong, period, and we can’t compromise that […] We’re definitely willing to pull our business and deal with all the complications that come with it. Because this is certainly, this is bigger than the business.” The ATP, the men’s tour, also called for an investigation. The IOC sent out a terse emailed statement and refused to comment further; the statement reads in part, “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.” The IFT referred to Peng’s situation obliquely in a tweet, refusing to name the accusation or the accused.

The Biden administration demanded “independent, verifiable proof” of Peng’s whereabouts and is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics—primarily due to China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The German Olympic team also expressed concern over Peng’s safety:

Although the IOC has been reticent to speak out on China’s human rights issues, senior IOC member Dick Pound told Reuters’ Steve Keating that the Peng Shuai situation might compel it to take a harder line:

“If that’s not resolved in a sensible way very soon it may spin out of control,” Pound, the IOC’s longest serving member, told Reuters. “It may (force IOC into taking a harder line).

“Whether that escalates to a cessation of the Olympic Games I doubt it. But you never know.”

[…] “Where we have generated some change of attitude in the past we’ve said, “listen this is all out there in the public how do we respond. We can’t ignore it.

[…] “My guess is it will be that kind of line rather than jabbing them in the chest and saying ‘do this or the world will end’. [Source]

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