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EARLIER THIS MONTH, the tennis star Peng Shuai posted on her Weibo account an accusation that three years ago she had been sexually assaulted by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, a man with whom she had had an on-off relationship for more than a decade.

Her 1,500-character post quickly disappeared, as, seemingly, did Peng.

Questions were raised by prominent figures in world tennis about Peng’s silence, whereabouts and safety.

Now China Global Television News, the international subsidiary of state-broadcaster CCTV, has posted on social media a screenshot of an email sent purportedly by Peng to Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which says in effect, it is all fake news; that the accusation is not true, that she never made it, and that she is just resting at home.

Simon does not believe a word of it. In a statement released by the WTA, he said:

The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.

I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.

Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.

The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.

The WTA’s strong stance stands in contrast to the United States’ National Basketball Association and England’s Premier League, which put their commercial interests first when their officials or players spoke out about abuses in China to the displeasure of authorities.

Before the Covid-19 disruption, the WTA staged some ten tournaments a year in China and has significant Chinese corporate sponsors. That is hard cash on the line in publically challenging China’s version of events. However, sexual assault is a less abstract issue to its domestic audience than the Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues that embroiled the NBA and Premier League. The WTA’s reputational calculation may look a lot different.

The commercial calculus for teams/leagues sports like basketball and football is different from those for an individual/tournament sport like tennis.

There is much to all this that looks familiar: the dropping out of sight; the censorious sweeping clean of social media and online searches of all mentions; the confession or repudiation fabricated or written under duress along with a profession that all is well and it is a case of those wishing ill to China making mischief.

Yet other factors muddy the well-thumbed playbook. The protagonists are both unusually prominent. Zhang is not an official who might have been expected to have a mistress half his age, but a high-ranking figure in the Party, albeit at 75, retired from office sine 2018 and dutifully out of the public spotlight. Peng is an iconic sports personality inside China and well known outside it, not a flibbertigibbet entertainer who is only a star in China, which makes her more challenging to marginalise.

Her accusation is also the first against a high-ranking political figure since the #MeToo movement took hold in China in 2018. That alone makes it categorically different from similar accusations against men in the non-profit world, academia and media,

Although it has struggled against a hostile official environment and the suppression of any form of identity politics, the #MeToo movement has touched a sufficiently raw nerve that Peng’s accusations cannot simply be silently airbrushed out of history. Nor can the movement be credibly portrayed as a foreign influence designed to constrain China’s development.

Furthermore, if a case officer in the propaganda department has misread the #MeToo movement in the United States as a further sign of US decline rather than the pivotal force that can not be ignored by US commercial entities it has become, that may prove a costly mistake.

A third complication is that China will hold the Winter Olympic Games in February. There is already talk within some Western democracies of boycotting it to protest against Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and Peng’s situation could bolster that case. The International Olympic Committee’s statement today that it is encouraged by assurances that Peng is safe is unlikely to be taken at face value by many.

This leaves authorities in a quandary. A sign of this may be that in the foreign ministry’s regular daily briefing, spokesman Zhao Lijian distanced official China from the affair, saying that it is not a foreign affairs matter and he was ‘not aware’ of Peng’s situation.

There is no official Chinese version of events yet, and the censors’ swift initial work means the story does not exist inside China. CGTV’s posting of a screenshot of the email does not change that as it used Twitter, which is blocked in China. The intended audience was abroad. probably backed by a hope that the disinformation amplification chambers of Western social media would lend it credibility.

That has not happened, but it still leaves plenty of room for official deniability of a misinformation campaign. Yet, the embarrassing silence will have to be broken at some point, once the propaganda department has worked out how.

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