A pro-Beijing Singaporean state-controlled news outlet’s brief interview with Peng Shuai has raised more questions than it answered. A reporter for Lianhe Zaobao pulled Peng aside for an ostensibly unscheduled interview along the sidelines of a Shanghai event promoting cross-country skiing. Peng did not deny an assertion that she authored the Weibo post that set the saga in motion, but claimed that she never accused anyone of sexual assault, contradicting the language in her original post. She stated that CGTN’s tweeted screenshot of an English-language email to Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon was a faithful translation of her original Chinese draft. Peng further stated she has freedom of movement and is not under surveillance, but is not planning to leave China any time soon:
At The New York Times, Chris Buckley reported on Peng’s interview and international skepticism that her comments were made freely:
Ms. Peng made the comments in an interview that was published on Sunday by a Singaporean newspaper. But the retraction appeared unlikely to extinguish concerns about her well-being and suspicions that she had been the target of well-honed pressure techniques and a propaganda campaign by Chinese officials.
[…] After this latest interview, a spokesperson for [the Women’s Tennis Association] said it still had not been able to make independent contact with Ms. Peng. And the association said in a statement, “We remain steadfast in 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.”
[…] There was no mention of Ms. Peng’s latest comments in Chinese state media, which operates inside a wall of censorship. [Source]
To many observers, Peng seemed uncomfortable during the interview, and could not recall the dates of her video-conferences with the International Olympic Committee. She also declined to answer questions about her activities in Beijing. Peng also claimed that her Weibo post, shared with her 574,000 followers, was “a matter of personal privacy.” Peng was accompanied by Ding Li, a man who claims to be her friend and had previously posted multiple videos of her in Beijing. A number of state media employees and Ding posted videos and photographs of Peng in Shanghai:
So happy to see some of these prominent Chinese sports stars, besides Yao Ming and Peng Shuai, also, Olympic sailing champion Xu Lijia and table tennis Wang Liqin, cheer for ice sports ahead of @Beijing2022 pic.twitter.com/3xP5CyrPhX
— Qingqing_Chen (@qingqingparis) December 19, 2021
上海滩 Pengshuai @WTA @atptour @iocmedia pic.twitter.com/iiOnHuPwrd
— 丁力 (@li_ding1) December 19, 2021
Whenever I post pictures of me and my friends just hanging out, I only mention one of them and cc the WTA, IOC and ATP https://t.co/rlSxJCoOOY
— Kerry Allen 凯丽 (@kerrya11en) December 19, 2021
Peng’s Weibo account remains dormant and the mere mention of her name triggers swift censorship. She has yet to post on the internet or communicate to the general public without an intermediary. The videos of her conversation with the IOC have not been made public. Peng stated she needed CGTN’s help with a translation of her email to Simon but, as noted by Peter Dahlin of Safeguard Defenders, Peng speaks nearly fluent English.
The identity of the reporter who interviewed Peng—who had been unreachable by foreign outlets and remains so to all but Lianhe Zaobao—further muddied the waters:
According to Gu Gonglei's Linkedin, she switched to Lianhe Zaobao's sales side in 2017, but she continues to pen stories. A recent piece praises Xiamen – you wouldn't know it's sponsored by the Xiamen Publicity Dept. until reading it to the very end. https://t.co/R9sAAdXa8k https://t.co/KlB0tphbtM pic.twitter.com/H7uBZNPhVs
— Zhaoyin Feng 馮兆音 (@ZhaoyinFeng) December 20, 2021
So, after 48 days, Peng Shuai unexpectedly encountered a journalist from a pro-Beijing newspaper and then casually answered her questions about an event that gandered intense international attention. Wow, so natural, very real, everyone now believes it. Congratulations, the CCP! https://t.co/qBgw8Ob3ib
— Yaqiu Wang 王亚秋 (@Yaqiu) December 19, 2021
At Business Insider, Bill Bostock reported that Peng’s short disappearance and new public persona bears hallmarks of the control methods the state has employed against Jack Ma, Fan Bingbing, and Ai Weiwei:
“They keep these people and they try to find some sort of arrangement,” Konstantinos Tsimonis, a lecturer in Chinese society at the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, told Insider after Peng first disappeared.
[…] “Proximity to the top levels of power — fame, money, power, a Nobel peace prize — do not buy you any added protection,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told Insider last month.
“This case has laid bare for yet another large global audience the truly arbitrary nature of power the Chinese government and party wield,” she said, referring to Peng. “This happens all the time, this is the norm, not the exception.” [Source]
International organizations have reacted in markedly different ways to Peng’s plight. The WTA remains steadfast in its demands for a full and transparent investigation into Peng’s accusations against Zhang Gaoli, and withdrew from China in early December saying that it would not return until its concerns over Peng’s safety could be addressed. At Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim reported on the WTA’s decision to leave the country at great financial cost:
In the WTA’s case, there was consensus. From players of all levels. From the alumnae. From their agents. From the WTA Board. [WTA royalty Martina Navratilova] notes that for years it was axiomatic that there were “three T’s” that were considered taboo to the Chinese government: Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. “Now, we can add a fourth: tennis.”
[…] There was a central, inconvenient truth, an open secret: The players had little use for China. There was something unseemly about this nakedly transactional relationship. The events were often staged in arenas devoid of fans and in uncomfortable situations. One example: When Shenzhen held the WTA Finals event in 2019, players could see Chinese tanks positioned menacingly in the direction of adjacent Hong Kong. In the stadium parking lot, Chinese soldiers practiced riot drills, preparing to squelch pro-democracy protests.
Factor in the travel, time zone adjustment, language barrier, even the traffic, and it’s no surprise that players developed a habit of withdrawing from events in China just before a tournament’s start, often with dubious injuries. Consider: While China figured prominently in the WTA’s business model, Serena Williams hasn’t played an event in the country since 2014. [Source]
The International Olympic Committee has taken a different route. The IOC has consistently turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in China and seems determined to sweep the Peng Shuai incident under the rug. Senior IOC member Dick Pound told a German radio show that there was “nothing wrong with China” hosting the Olympics. At The New York Times, Li Yuan detailed how three powerful actors—a foundation run by the son of the IOC’s former president, the Chinese government, and the IOC itself—combine to silence criticism of China:
“One of [the Samaranch Foundation’s] bigger donors is the sportswear maker Anta, which pledged to continue using cotton from Xinjiang, where forced labor was used amid the government suppression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups. Anta’s chief executive sits on the foundation’s board.
[…] It celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in a 2019 post on its website, calling it a “love letter.” Earlier this year, it organized a nationwide red-themed running race for middle school students for the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
[…] Then during another online media briefing this week, he urged for a “need to be discreet” in Ms. Peng’s situation. “Everybody should be concentrating on the well-being of Peng Shuai and not trying to use this for any other purpose,” he said. [Source]