If Peng Shuai really is safe in China, then why does no one believe so? How long will Beijing be able to continue creating their narrative and calling it the truth when they are up against a woke young generation who is willing to pay the price, however high, to be heard?
Before deep-diving, let’s get a little back-ground first.
The Big Blast Online
Peng Shuai is one of China’s most popular tennis players, who on the 2nd day of November last year published a 1600 word post on Weibo (Chinese Twitter). In the short-lived post, she penned down her #metoo story, accusing former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sexual relations with him.
She wrote, “even if it’s just striking a stone with a pebble, or a moth attacking a flame and courting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you”.
The World-Wide Reaction
This being the first time that someone had accused such a senior leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Beijing reacted quickly and restricted access to any information about Ms Peng on the internet.
Comments on the Chinese celebrity’s own timeline were blocked along with certain specific search terms. Other posts referring to Peng Shuai have also been censored or removed. On the 3rd of November, Chinese tennis commentator, Ouyang Wensheng put out a few words of concern; “hope you are safe” and “how desperate and helpless she must have been”, all of which have been taken down.
Along with her virtual disappearance, her physical being too soon disappeared, in response to which the UN and USA have asked for proof of Peng’s safety.
The post’s time alive was enough to spark international scrutiny. Renowned players like Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams also voiced their worry for their fellow player, birthing the hashtag, #WHEREISPENGSHUAI.
On 1st December, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) head, Steve Simon suspended all tournaments lined up to be held in China saying that, “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there”. He expressed serious doubts about Peng’s well-being.
Beijing Adds To The Fun
The Chinese government conveniently denied having any knowledge about this and later went on to accuse concerns as ‘unnecessary politicisation’. Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry said the controversy around Peng Shuai was unnecessarily hyped up.
Following Peng’s nearly three-week public absence, they clumsily attempted to cover their extremely evident censorship, first via a supposed letter from Peng to the WTA head, issued through the Chinese state TV channel. Prior to that, Hu Xijin, the editor of the Global Times, a CCP owned media organisation posted videos of her in public, having a meal at a restaurant.
A few days later Peng reportedly told the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that she was “safe”, with Chinese officials on the other line. The IOC President had a half hour long video call with the former Doubles World Number 1 and quoted her saying that she was “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time”. However, considering IOC’s history of having intimate ties with authoritarian regimes, the WTA still remains worried, and rightfully so. None of us can fill in gaps present in the story out there.
All For Nothing?
Couple of days later Peng retracted her statement, saying that it wasn’t her who had posted the allegation about having been sexually assaulted. The second I read this, I laughed. The pure irony of it all is mind-boggling.
Today, despite the spectacle and probable coercion, she looks healthy and is probably safe.
We hope for it to stay the same in the future as well.
Both narratives are significant and illuminate extremely current issues yet again; women’s rights and cyber-crime. With no definite answer to the question, we can choose to believe either. Hopefully, the consensus of the masses will reach a conclusion in support of the right and the human.
The Olympic Conundrum
This will not be the first time though, when China has had to dodge a bullet which they themselves fired. Along with the accusations of committing atrocities violating human rights of the Uyghur Muslim population in the northwest province of Xinjiang and the 2022 Winter Olympics just around the corner, the disappearance of a sports celebrity didn’t do the Chinese any favours. Unsurprisingly, it quickly turned into a geopolitical affair. Countries are now pressuring the United States to impose a diplomatic boycott on the Games, which they have along with UK, Canada, Germany, Japan, Australia, Lithuania and Kosovo. France, interestingly, holds a different opinion, with President Macaron saying, “I don’t think we should politicise these topics, especially if it is to take steps that are insignificant and symbolic”. Usually tailing US’s diplomatic decisions, this time France has quite a bit at stake at the Games, with Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron favourites to stand at the Couples Artistic Skating podium, especially after the unfortunate wardrobe malfunction at the previous Games.
In response the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that the US has “clearly violated the Olympic spirit” and “will pay a price for its erroneous actions”. They’ve warned their accusers to not interfere in their internal affairs.
The Chinese have been censoring expressions since time immemorial, yet despite all their efforts this time, we did manage to create a ripple big enough to shake the world. From human rights activists to major international tabloids, all have picked up on Peng Shuai’s story and it’s time we too do that. The ripple might start dimming but it will still be there if we want it to.