“This time, I stand with the WTA,” AKA “The Women’s Tableless Ping Pong Association”

On Wednesday, the Women’s Tennis Association announced the suspension of all future tournaments in China and Hong Kong over concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian and former #1-ranked doubles player who is one of China’s highest-profile athletes. Peng Shuai has not spoken publicly since November 2, when she posted a letter on her personal Weibo account accusing retired Vice Premier and former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her three years ago and coercing her into having an affair.

The statement from WTA CEO Steve Simon was published well past midnight Beijing time, which may have allowed a window for uncensored discussion on Chinese media. This window lasted long enough for one netizen to joke, “Where are the Weibo censors?” CDT has collected and translated some of the initial reactions on Weibo, many of which were supportive of the WTA’s bold action.Some of the translated Weibo comments below have been reordered according to topic. 

Screenshot 1 of now-deleted Weibo comments.

Screenshot 2 of now-deleted Weibo comments.

Screenshot 3 of now-deleted Weibo comments.


@米兰夺冠就改名:This time, I stand with the WTA.

@懒散的筵席:Keep fighting, WTA. Whatever happens, don’t back down [from what you said], keep speaking up.

@薄暮秋风起:This is the right thing to do.

@阿尔法的Ferris:Rice Bunny [#MeToo]

@月亮门红姑娘:WTA has so much moral backbone.

@皇后貶謫大道西:For women, thx 👍

@春熊mm:WTA stands firm! The more they try to shut us up, the more we want to speak😊 Why hasn’t that man been arrested and thrown in jail yet? He must have some seriously powerful backers. Ridiculous.

Despite this brief respite, online commentary related to Peng’s accusation has been met with blanket censorship. Her name is now a highly sensitive word on Chinese social media. In late November, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Weibo search for Peng Shuai’s name returned only one result: a post from the French Embassy. Although the French Embassy post remains up, it is now unsearchable on Weibo.

The “Women’s Tennis Association” and “WTA” are also sensitive terms. One resourceful Weibo user coined the phrase “Women’s Tableless Ping Pong Association” to avoid platform-based censorship of the term “Women’s Tennis Association,” but the post was nonetheless deleted within hours. The discussion on the WTA’s withdrawal from China demonstrated Weibo users’ studious avoidance of naming Peng or the accused, Zhang Gaoli:

@ulysses-f:Ugh, you can’t even mention the names of the two people involved in this incident.

@ElliotQ__:Fearing for the safety of a certain athlete…

@费里尼师傅:Former Vice Premier Zhang + archaic/taboo name for Korea. [Gaoli]

Not all Weibo responses to the WTA’s announcement were positive. Some commenters took offense and accused the WTA of manufacturing a crisis where there was none. Yet, before censors moved in, these posts were often criticized or mocked by other Weibo users. The below post by @就爱吃凤爪 offers an instructive example. Two comments replying to @就爱吃凤爪’s original post received more likes than the original:

@就爱吃凤爪:Talk about blowing things out of proportion. They already video-chatted [with her], and they’re still pulling this F&#%&ing bullshit?

@翔___6th:All related words are being censored nationwide, and there’s no freedom in sight for this person. If they can do this to one person, they can do it to the next. Instead of caring about your fellow citizen, you’re too worried about the iron fist.

@查理布朗的小:Stop acting clueless.

After the WTA announced the suspension of tournaments, the IOC claimed it held a second video call with Peng. It again refused to release a video or transcript of the meeting, which was also attended by a Chinese member of the IOC who is also a member of the Communist Party. John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches Olympic ethics, told NBC News, “In Beijing, the scenario of the Nazi Olympics is being repeated.”

Many netizens directed their ire, and mockery, at the International Olympic Committee for its quiescence:

@好奇的你_:Stronger-willed than the IOC.

@靈木紫康:The WTA is led by feminists, they’re stronger than the IOC.

@6512547315_329:So adamant! Way more impressive than the IOC.

The Association of Tennis Professionals, which governs men’s professional tennis, did not join the WTA in suspending tournaments in China. Instead, it claimed that “having a global presence gives us the best chance of creating opportunity and making an impact.” Tennis players past and present criticized the statement: 

China’s overseas propaganda response to the Peng Shuai furor has been uneven. Global Times, a state-media tabloid, tweeted a screenshot of an editorial that was originally not published on its website. (The editorial was later published there, but only in English, and was not featured on Global Times’ homepage, an unusual omission.) The editorial called Steve Simon and the WTA a hypocritical “hero team,” accused them of employing “old tricks,” and concluded with a warning: “They are opening a Pandora’s box. They are betrayers of the Olympic spirit.”

At a press conference on Thursday, Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that China opposes the politicization of sport, but even that anodyne answer was excised from a transcript of the press conference published on the MOFA’s website. At CNN, Nectar Gan and Steve George interviewed David Bandurski, an expert on Chinese media, about China’s haphazard messaging and response

“We could talk here about a two-pronged strategy, about how China has enforced complete silence at home while pushing a narrative externally about meddling journalists and the politicizing of sport. But to call it a strategy at all suggests a sophistication that is not really there,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project.

“What we actually see is desperation, the editor-in-chief of one state-run newspaper rushing out on Twitter and banging his dishpan. The point is to distract the world from obvious and damning facts.”

[…] “It’s very raucous. It’s very non-strategic. And I think in that sense, it’s incredibly foolish.” [Source]

On Twitter, BBC reporter Tessa Wong posted a thread detailing her interactions with a man claiming to know Peng Shuai: 

On Friday, Peter Dahlin of Safeguard Defenders issued an open letter to the IOC, suggesting that its tepid response to Peng Shuai’s detention may put her in even graver danger:

Contrary to your latest statements, the actions of the IOC are directly putting Peng at greater risk. If this continued error is indeed due to ignorance, this open letter will at least be one step to remedy such lack of knowledge, information, and understanding.

The practice of stage-managed appearances is most often referred to as forced televised confessions, though recently PRC police will more often resort to posting such videos on their social media channels or have newspapers carry them on their websites. In every scenario, the purpose remains the same: to either attack the person her- or himself, or to counter international criticism.

[…] Finally, about your actions putting her in greater, not lesser, danger? During my ten years or so in Beijing I would, among many other things, conduct what you might call exit interviews. That is: we would talk to people released from detention, arrest, or imprisonment, and we would ask about how their treatment changed with media- or diplomatic attention. Guess what? Every single person we have ever spoken to said the same thing; it improves, often significantly, with more attention. [Source]

Cindy Carter contributed to this post.


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